Winfield’s Defense Lifts Bucs to Third Consecutive NFC South Crown

Ken Cross

January 10, 2024 at 7:00 pm.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rose up in a defensive battle and shut out the woebegone Carolina Panthers, 9-0, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Sunday afternoon, it was almost like the Bucs were laying their championship hopes on their defense to win it.

The visitors knew that Carolina’s rookie quarterback Bryce Allen would have to try to make plays in order for make for the Panthers to escape with a win.

“It was a defensive battle,” said Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles. “We had enough for Winfield’s play on the goal line. Thank goodness for Chase’s  (McLaughlin) field goals. We knew it was going to be tough and we made less mistakes and we got the division title.”

Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield considered the strength of the last six weeks as the key in what has been a tough season in some cases for the Bucs.

“I can’t say enough about this team and the stuff we have been through this year,” said Mayfield. “We handled it correctly. We won five of six to get into the playoffs and win the division.”

The biggest play of the game naturally came on the defensive side of the ball. Allen threw to the outside as wide receiver DJ Chark hauled in a catch that looked like it would give Carolina a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.

However, Buccaneers free safety Antoine Winfield came across the field and when Chark tried to reach the ball out to break the plane for the score, Winfield grabbed Chark’s right arm and forced a fumble. Jamel Dean recovered the ball in the end zone and the play was a precursor of things to come in holding the Panthers scoreless.

“I was put in a similar situation this season,” explained Winfield. “I knew he was going to reach the ball, so I just had to punch the ball out and make a play.”

Winfield’s defensive acumen lined up his sixth forced fumble of the season which joined his four fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

“I can’t say enough about our defense,” commented Mayfield. “Once again, Antoine Winfield, Jr., showed up when we needed him. We’re lucky to have him. A lot of players stepped up and did a lot defensively.”

Ironically, Winfield has had a stellar season as one of the Buccaneers’ top defensive playmakers, but he was snubbed and not placed on the Pro Bowl roster.

“That was one of my goals coming here was to create a takeaway,” noted Winfield. “We came out today and we had the mindset that we had to win.”

The Tampa Bay defense only allowed Carolina to post 199 yards on 50 plays. Winfield was third in tackles with five, as he also recorded a sack.

“Antoine, he’s a humble guy,” said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. “You just keep making the plays you make and it will come. He’s a blessing we get to have as a teammate.”

Bucs kicker Chase McLaughlin connected on all three of his field goal attempts as his offensive output was a must for the Buccaneers, who could get nothing going on offense. They posted only 228 yards on 64 plays which was only 3.6 yards per play.

“Offensively, we ran the ball when we needed to,” said Mayfield. “It wasn’t a pretty win by any means, but there’s room for improvement. We are going to the playoffs and we are division champs.”

McLaughlin has been a solid fixture as a kicker as he made 29 of 31 field goals this season. Sunday he hit from 36 and 39 yards and popped a 57-yard field goal on the last play of the first half to hand Tampa Bay a 6-0 lead.

“He couldn’t make 50-yarders a year ago and right now, he is hitting them right down the middle,” said Tampa Bay head coach Todd Bowles. “He has been a big addition for us and has come through every time.”

Winning the NFC South allows the Buccaneers to host the Philadelphia Eagles this coming Monday night. Philly defeated Tampa, 25-11, early in the season.

“It’s a one-game season now,” said David. “Guys are really excited and really happy. We are definitely going to enjoy this moment right now, but we are definitely going to get back to the drawing board.”