TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist they never doubted themselves. Not after Tom Brady retired. Not even after the Philadelphia Eagles gashed them in an early-season, prime-time matchup that suggested there was a huge gap between themselves and the defending NFC champions.
Philadelphia rushed for 201 yards, while the Eagles kept Tampa Bay out of the end zone until early in the fourth quarter.
After the sputtering Bucs offense broke finally through, with Baker Mayfield throwing a short touchdown pass to Mike Evans and adding a 2-point conversion to trim a 22-point deficit to 14, Hurts and the Eagles’ offense took the field and held the ball for the final nine minutes of the game.
A little over three months later, the NFC South champion Bucs (9-8) relish an opportunity to make amends when the Eagles (11-6) visit Raymond James Stadium on Monday night in the final game of the NFL’s wild-card weekend.
For much of the season, it’s a rematch that didn’t figure to happen.
Philadelphia started 10-1 before losing five of six to fall all the way to the No. 5 seed. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, rebounded from a stretch in which it lost six of seven to go 5-1 over the last six weeks to win its third consecutive division title and earn the No. 4 seed.
“We have a locker room full of guys that are comfortable being counted out. That’s when we’re most comfortable,” Mayfield said. “All we wanted was a chance to get in. Now we’re here, and we’ve got to handle it the right way.”
Tampa Bay is only team in the NFC that’s made the playoffs each of the past four seasons. The culture built while Brady was with the team the past three years is one of the reasons coach Todd Bowles was confident the Bucs were capable of continued success with Mayfield at quarterback.
“We talked about it early in the summer. We’ve got a very good culture. How we like what we have. It was a complete change from what we had before, which was great, too, but there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat,” Bowles said. “The guys believed in each other. They never fed into the outside media. We wrote our own narrative. We heard everything. They practiced hard, they worked hard, and they got it done.”
Philadelphia spent much of the season resembling a team that was determined to get back the Super Bowl after losing the title game to the Kansas City Chiefs last February.
When players gathered for practice this week, coach Nick Sirianni spoke to them about getting back to who they are as a team.
“I don’t think you come up with a new message because you got to the playoffs, you come back to who you are, what got you here,” Sirianni said. “Even if you drifted a little bit from who you are, what got you there, just trying to get yourself back to that moment.”
Both teams have injury concerns.
Mayfield (ribs, ankle) played through discomfort last week in the Buccaneers division- and playoff-clinching win at Carolina. He’s still sore.
Hurts dislocated the middle finger of his throwing hand and leading receiver A.J. Brown suffered a knee injury during Philadelphia’s regular-season finale, a loss to the New York Giants.
“I know that he’s tough and he’ll do everything that he can do to play through it,” Sirianni said of Hurts, who threw for career highs of 3,858 yards and 23 TDs while also rushing for 15 TDs this season.
“Obviously, it will be a challenge,” Sirianni added. “And I know that he can overcome because he’s overcame so many different things throughout his football journey. And that’s what makes him special.”
Darius Slay is ready for a comeback.
The five-time Pro Bowl cornerback says he’s ready to play for the Eagles for the first time since he had knee surgery following a Dec. 10 loss to Dallas.
“Philly fans, your boy is back,” he said.
Slay said this week on his “Big Play Slay” podcast that his knee is feeling good, he participated in drills at practice and it was “go time now.”
“It’s playoff time now, playoff football, and (you) best believe I will be out there,” he said. “And I know y’all be like, ‘Dang, Slay! How you heal so fast from a torn meniscus?’ The average person don’t heal as fast as I do from a torn meniscus. This is a clean body. I’m talking about no drinking, no nothing. We just vibe, and I’m just high off energy. It’s just due justice.”
The Eagles could be in the market for a new offensive coordinator.
Brian Johnson is expected to be interviewed by multiple teams looking to fill head coaching vacancies. The Eagles are accustomed to the coaching cycle hitting Philly this time of the year. They lost offensive coordinator Shane Steichen to the Indianapolis Colts and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon to the Arizona Cardinals after last year’s Super Bowl.
Despite playing at home and finishing the season strong while the Eagles faded, the Buccaneers are three-point underdogs, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“I’m sure we’re underdogs, and we’ll be underdogs every week if we keep winning,” Bowles said. “We’re good with that.”
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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