Bucs coach Todd Bowles plans to play starters in Week 18

TAMPA, Fla. -- Despite the NFC South title already being in hand and the outcome of next week's game against the Atlanta Falcons having no impact on playoff positioning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles said Monday that the plan is to play their starters -- including 45-year-old quarterback Tom Brady -- in Week 18.

"We can get better at a lot of things, so right now, we plan on playing him," said Bowles, whose team is, at 8-8, locked into the No. 4 seed. "We'll see how the week goes going forward, but we can get better at a lot of things that we need to work on, and we don't need our foot off the gas."

After struggling to protect Brady, push the ball downfield and put points on the board all season, the Bucs' offense put together arguably one of its best performances of the season Sunday, defeating the Carolina Panthers 30-24 with Brady accounting for four touchdowns -- three passing and one on a quarterback sneak. All three touchdowns through the air were caught by Mike Evans, the franchise record holder in just about every receiving category, who hadn't caught a touchdown since Week 4.

The offensive line has been on shaky footing since training camp, when it lost Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen and Aaron Stinnie, who was competing for the starting left guard spot, to knee injuries. All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs just returned from a high ankle sprain and reaggravated it last week against the Arizona Cardinals, while left tackle Donovan Smith missed two games at the beginning of the season with a hyperextended elbow and last week's game with a foot injury. Backup swing tackle Josh Wells also just went to injured reserve with a knee injury.

"We don't have many [offensive linemen] to begin with," Bowles said. "It's not like training camp where you have 80 guys, 90 guys. We're limited to begin with, but some guys need some work on things, and as the week goes forward, we'll progress and make those decisions. But right now, everybody needs to plan on playing."

Starting a 45-year-old quarterback in a Week 18 game that has no impact on playoff position is risky. Last year, Brady started in Week 18 to ensure the Bucs could secure the No. 2 playoff seed.

Brady has never missed games when healthy. He missed the 2008 season after tearing his left ACL, and he missed the first four games of 2016 due to a suspension. He said Sunday that the decision would be up to Bowles but acknowledged he would be disappointed if he didn't play.

Playing Brady and the rest of the starters could ensure the Bucs finish the season with a winning record, and it could help them keep momentum, something they experienced when they won eight straight and captured a Super Bowl in 2020.

But injuries have heavily impacted the team more so over the past two seasons in Brady's quest for an eighth Super Bowl ring. Their receiver situation became so dire in last year's NFC divisional round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Rams that tight end Cameron Brate had to line up in the slot. Every member of their secondary has missed games this season. They have only two healthy outside linebackers in Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Anthony Nelson. And last week, Brady's blind side was protected by third-string tackle Brandon Walton.

"It's football. You can't play 16 games and then worry about the 17th," Bowles said. "You can't play three preseason games and 16 games and practice every day and say, 'You may get hurt on the 17th game.' You can get hurt the first week. You can get hurt in training camp. If you worry about that, you're probably gonna get hurt anyway.

"We signed up to play football and coach football. That's what we're gonna do. And everybody that loves football, that loves to play, will play the game. Injuries are gonna happen. It doesn't mean it happens in Week 17, a playoff game or preseason. You just gotta coach it and you gotta play it. You worry about injuries, you probably don't need to be playing a sport."

When asked whether he'd consider pulling players in the second half, Bowles said that it's possible and that the coaching staff would meet to discuss it. The Bucs did that in 2020 in a Week 16 blowout win over the Detroit Lions, and Brady started the next week, in the final game of the season at the Falcons, and finished that game.