NFC South Reporter
TAMPA, Fla. — If you have to play a football game on Christmas Eve, it’s nice to play it at home, and if it’s not asking too much, it’s nice to be up 30-0 in the third quarter.
The Bucs didn’t pull their starters Sunday, but it was the kind of game in which they could have, cruising to a 30-12 win over the Jaguars, enjoying their fourth straight win and sending Jacksonville home with its fourth straight loss.
“Huge, complementary football,” coach Todd Bowles said after the Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” blared from a jubilant locker room. “It’s the kind of football you want to play in December. Defense got turnovers, offense cashed in.”
Tampa Bay (8-7) is alone atop the NFC South standings and can clinch a third straight division title with a home win next week against the Saints, or a victory against the two-win Panthers in the season finale.
“It says a lot about the group that has gone through a big rough patch there in midseason,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “To stick it out and win four in a row, to be in control of our own destiny at this point, is great. It says a lot about the character we have.”
Mayfield continued his strong play in the team’s win streak, throwing for two touchdowns to Mike Evans — they’ve connected for 13 this year to top the NFL — in leading the Bucs to points on their first six drives. Rachaad White’s touchdown in the third quarter made it a 30-0 lead, and the outcome was never in doubt, even as Calvin Ridley caught two touchdown passes for the final margin.
Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence was cleared from concussion protocol Saturday but barely practiced all week, and he threw as many interceptions in the first half (2) as he had in the previous five games. He left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury, and with a three-way tie atop the AFC South standings with the Colts and Texans, the Jaguars might have to try to make the playoffs with backup C.J. Beathard at quarterback.
A month ago, the Bucs were 4-7 and had lost six out of seven games, lingering in contention only because they were in a bad division. Now they’ve won four in a row and have matched their season total from all of last year with Tom Brady at quarterback.
“We’re piecing it together,” Bowles said. “Everybody’s playing for each other, everybody’s locked in. We’re trying to get in. We’re clawing, we’re scrapping, doing everything we can. The leaders have been great for us, getting us through tough times, coming out on the other side. We know it’s not over.”
The Bucs started the game as healthy as they’ve been in months, though several key players went down with injuries during the game: corner Carlton Davis and safety Antoine Winfield (concussion) and outside linebacker Shaq Barrett (groin), though Bowles said Winfield was fine and could have returned if needed.
Winfield continues to play at an All-Pro level. He had an interception, a sack and a fumble recovery, with a hand in half the Bucs’ four turnovers. One surprise spark on defense was linebacker Devin White, who had missed the previous three games with a foot injury and lost his starting role to K.J. Britt. But White played plenty Sunday in the Bucs’ nickel package and came up with an interception on the Jaguars’ opening drive, setting up a touchdown and a quick 10-0 lead.
The Bucs have treated the past four games as playoff games, knowing they needed to win each to get themselves back atop the division, and they’ll continue that next week, wanting to take advantage of a chance to clinch a division title on their home field against the Saints. Asked if he’d asked Santa Claus for a victory Sunday, Mayfield said that was high on his list.
“I did ask for a win,” Mayfield said. “He brought that for me. That was great, but I’ve got another one coming. There was two parts to the wish.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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