TAMPA, Fla. — Bruce Arians is not ready to reflect on the challenge of transforming the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into winners.
With the 68-year-old coach and six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady leading the way, the Bucs (10-5) are headed to the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2007. They are one of the hottest teams in the NFC entering Sunday afternoon's home matchup with the Atlanta Falcons (4-10), a South Division contest to close the regular season.
A fourth consecutive win would clinch Tampa Bay's best finish in 15 years and send the team into the expanded postseason as a No. 5 seed.
"I think our guys made a commitment in August to each other, that if we beat the virus, we'd have a chance. If we stayed healthy, we'd have a chance to beat some teams that didn't," Arians said. "This is a big game coming up — a chance to keep that five seed and go 11-5. I think we'll think about all that when we can look in the rearview mirror. Right now, we're still looking ahead. It's not really a time to reflect yet."
Brady said it's vital to finish strong in order to continue to build momentum for the playoffs.
"We were 7-5 at the bye week and then won three straight," said the 43-year-old quarterback, who joined the Bucs in the offseason after spending the first 20 years of his NFL career with the New England Patriots. "It's been really important, and we've got another big one ... against Atlanta. Whatever happens after that is a bonus for all of us."
Despite clinching a playoff berth already, Arians said the Bucs will play to win the finale.
"When you make these decisions — and I've been a part of both sides — that five and six seed are different. I don't care what anybody says, they're different. And, 10-6, 11-5 are different," Arians said. "I've been 10-6 a bunch, been 10-6 and didn't make the playoffs; 11-5 is special. I think our guys are more than ready to go."
The Falcons are wrapping up a season that claimed the jobs of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after an 0-5 start. The team has gone 4-5 under interim coach Raheem Morris, including a 31-27 loss at home to Tampa Bay two weeks ago, when the Bucs trailed by 17 before Brady led scoring drives on five consecutive second-half possessions.
Last Sunday in Kansas City, Atlanta played the Chiefs tough before falling 17-14 to the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Morris said one of the things he'll remember most about a season in which the coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges on and off the field for all teams is the consistent effort of the Falcons in the face of adversity. The former Atlanta defensive coordinator interviewed with team officials Friday to retain his current job title without the interim label.
"These guys play hard every single week," said Morris, who went 17-31 with the Bucs from 2009 to 2011 in his only other stint as an NFL head coach. "You can question a lot of things about a team, you can question a lot about talent, you can question a lot about decision making, you cannot question these guys' effort."
There is no telling what roster changes a new coach — even if it's Morris — and new GM will lead to in Atlanta, but count veteran quarterback Matt Ryan among the players who hope the team brings back center Alex Mack, a six-time Pro Bowl selection whose contract expires after the season.
"He's meant a ton. He's an awesome teammate. He gives you everything he's got mentally, physically, emotionally. Every ounce of what he has, he's given to our team week in and week out," Ryan said. "I've been lucky to have spent five years with him. It goes by quickly. I feel like he just got here."
Mack is on the injury report after missing the Kansas City game with a concussion. He was a limited participant in practice early in the week as Atlanta prepared for the Bucs.
This game could be the last chance for some to prove they have a future with the Falcons.
Defensive end Dante Fowler struggled after signing a $45 million, three-year contract with the Falcons in free agency. He had 11.5 sacks last season with the Los Angeles Rams, but he has been slowed by ankle and hamstring injuries in addition to spending time on the COVID-19 reserve list.
"We have to get him going," Morris said.
Fowler has two sacks this season.
"I was pretty banged up this year, but that's no excuse. I'm still held to a standard," Fowler said. "This year I don't feel like I played up to my standards. Whether I was hurt or not, I can play better and I will get better."