Bucs can't catch 49ers and time is running out after latest loss
Shortly after the Bucs fell to the 49ers on Sunday, coach Todd Bowles gathered his team that has lost five of its past six games in the center of the visiting locker room at Levi's Stadium. He let everyone know, in so many words, that time is running out.

There may be no shame in losing 27-14 to the defending NFC West champions. After all, they were done in again by Mr. Perfect, Brock Purdy, who had the first flawless passer rating (158.3) by a 49ers quarterback since Joe Montana in 1989. Purdy threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns.

But having been beaten by division leaders Philadelphia, Detroit and now San Francisco, Bowles made it clear that only victories that go in the win column will be acceptable at 4-6 with seven games remaining in the fast-sinking season.

"We lost to all of them," Bowles said of the Eagles, Lions and 49ers. " We feel like we're in every game, we have a chance to win every game when we come out on the field, so that's not an issue. Like I told them today in the locker room, it's not a moral victory that we fought. Our victories come when we can cut out the mistakes and win ballgames and we understand that going forward."

The Bucs had said Sunday's game would be another measuring stick of where their team is at. Tampa Bay fell behind 27-7 before mounting a fourth-quarter rally that saw them cut the lead to two touchdowns only to have drives end at the 49ers '12-yard line on downs and at the 9-yard line after Baker Mayfield was intercepted.

In between was a dropped touchdown pass in the end zone by tight end Cade Otton and more blown coverages than you could shake a Candlestick at. Purdy missed only four passes all day, going 21 of 25. His favorite target was Brandon Aiyuk, who caught five passes for 156 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown to start the third quarter.

"We gave up the deep ball," Bowles said. "They went 98 yards in three plays. They got a bootleg that we blew and man coverage, obviously. (Jamel) Dean didn't get hands on him at the line (of scrimmage) and they beat him. It's a credit to him. He's a great receiver, we know that. But we feel like we play man coverage very well and sometimes they beat us, and we got beat."

The Bucs also were beaten up. Not finishing the game were starting cornerbacks, Dean (ankle/foot) and Carlton Davis (hip), and linebacker Lavonte David (groin). Left tackle Tristan Wirfs injured his ankle but finished the game. Despite all that, the Bucs had their chances Sunday to win, to beat a team of consequence and tie the Saints (5-5) atop the NFC South.

After Purdy's TD pass to tight end George Kittle made it 27-7 with just under two minutes to go in the third quarter, the Bucs needed only five plays to reach the end zone. Mayfield connected with rookie Rakim Jarrett for 41 yards. Then after linebacker Fred Warner interfered with Otton in the end zone for a 22-yard penalty, Rachaad White scored on a 1-yard run.

On their next possession, the Bucs drove it to the 12-yard line with Mayfield completing eight straight passes. But he missed Mike Evans twice in the end zone, turning the ball over on downs. Rookie Deven Thompkins '51-yard punt return set the Bucs up at the 49ers '13-yard line. But Otton dropped a pass on second down in the end zone. On the next play, Mayfield was intercepted on a tipped pass to Godwin by Ji'Ayir Brown.

"Personally, I think about the one I dropped in the end zone," Otton said. "You know, those types of plays are keeping us back as a team. For me, I take that personally on myself. I've got to make those plays and everyone on the team feels the same way. We've got to make them. We'll get better and we have everyone we need."

"We had our chances in the red zone," Bowles said. "We got down there two or three times, we just couldn't punch it in."

Mayfield can also do the math. The Bucs have seven remaining games, including four against the NFC South where they can't afford a stumble. They have two games against Carolina and one each vs. the Saints and Falcons. Next Sunday, Tampa Bay has a winnable game at Indianapolis. Could they also pull out another win at Green Bay or home against the Jaguars?

"For us, right now it's obviously we've got a long flight home but on the road again next week," Mayfield said. "Find a way to win and just a ‘one game at time 'mentality from here on out. Heads down. Black out everything else and see where we can take this thing. With the group that fights this hard, it's too damn hard not to think that we can control our destiny. We have to be able to do that. I still believe in this group."

Rick Stroud, The Tampa Bay Times, published 20 November 2023