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NFC South champion Bucs close regular season in Atlanta

Jan 1, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA;  Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls a play at the line against the Carolina Panthers in the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers reached one of their goals with one game to spare. They’ll play against the Falcons on Sunday afternoon in Atlanta to finish the regular season.

“We’ve had an up-and-down year,” Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles said. “We’ve had some tough losses. We’ve had some tough wins. We’ve earned it.”

Tampa Bay has won consecutive NFC South titles for the first time in club history. The Buccaneers (8-8) will be playing a week after clinching the divisional crown and a home playoff spot for the opening week of the postseason.

The Falcons (6-10) will try to avoid last place in the division. They’re tied with the Carolina Panthers, who visit the 7-9 New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Those three teams could end up tied just a game behind Tampa Bay with Carolina and Atlanta victories to end the season.

The Buccaneers had to have a playoff mentality the past few weeks in what seemed like must-win situations. So the trip to Atlanta will be a deviation from that.

“All the games matter to us,” Bowles said. “We try to win them all. We’re going into it with everybody expecting to play.”

Bowles said there’s no time to relax because that lack of urgency could seep into the mindset for a team that needs to shore up several areas.

“You want to be cleaned up by the time you get to the playoffs,” Bowles said. “If they take that week off, they’re not going to be ready the next week. We just want to play a solid overall game.”

There are a couple of depth-chart changes for the Buccaneers, with running back Rachaad White and tight end Cade Otton listed as starters. White has been pretty much sharing the main role with veteran Leonard Fournette.

Receiver Mike Evans has been racking up accolades at a record clip. Coming off his second career 200-yard receiving day (10 catches, 207 yards, three touchdowns) last Sunday in the team’s comeback win over Carolina, he has nine seasons in a row with at least 1,000 receiving yards.

“It’s a credit to his work ethic,” Bowles said. “He still competes to this day.”

After last week’s 20-19 home victory against Arizona, the Falcons will have a chance to do something they’ve done only once previously this season — win back-to-back games.

The Buccaneers and Falcons both posted fourth-quarter comebacks last week. Tampa Bay’s division clincher was more notable, with quarterback Tom Brady (425 passing yards, three TD passes) putting together another late-game rally to overcome the Panthers.

But the comeback for the Falcons was valuable for Atlanta rookie QB Desmond Ridder. In his first career win as an NFL starter, he showed that he could come through in the clutch as well.

“If you want to be a big-time quarterback, you need to win on critical third downs in two-minute situations and go win the game like he did right there,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said.

Ridder said it was important to set the right tone.

“You want to let (teammates) see that you’re calm and composed and ready to execute,” Ridder said.

Ridder said the past few weeks as the starting quarterback have been ideal learning situations. Those are things he’s trying to build.

Smith said Ridder has shown signs of what it takes to be a starter in the NFL. His first-season audition comes to a close with Sunday’s game.

Tampa Bay defeated the Falcons 21-15 in the fifth week of the season in Tampa, Fla.

–Field Level Media