The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, but coach Bruce Arians still has a major task at the forefront of his mind.
Arians not only wants to close the regular season with a victory in Sunday's game against the visiting Atlanta Falcons, but he also wants to see Mike Evans' name standing alone in the record books.
Evans needs 40 receiving yards against the Falcons (4-11) to become the first player in NFL history to reach 1,000 in each of his first seven NFL seasons. Evans shares the current mark of six with Hall of Famer Randy Moss.
"I desperately want that to happen," Arians said. "Whatever he needs or whatever he has left -- I'm sure Atlanta's not going to want to give it to him, so we'll have to find some creative ways to get it for him."
There were certainly times when it looked like there wasn't much of a chance of the streak being extended.
Evans, 27, was bothered by a hamstring injury at the outset of the campaign and later suffered an ankle injury. He had just 2 receiving yards -- yes 2 -- in both Weeks 1 and 3.
When he had just 10 yards in Week 6, Evans' total was at 281. Even in mid-December, he had just 669 yards with three games left.
But Evans heated up quickly. He had 110 yards in Week 15 when the Buccaneers (10-5) defeated the Falcons 31-17, and had his top outing of the campaign on Dec. 26 when he had 10 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns in a 47-7 rout of the Detroit Lions.
And just like that, Evans' total sits at 960 as he closes in on the record.
"Early in the season, I was hurt really bad," Evans said. "But it's my job to play, like I always say. It just feels good. I'm getting back on track and getting healthier."
Despite the slow start, Evans has 67 receptions and a franchise-record 13 touchdown catches, breaking the mark he set in 2014 and 2016.
Evans meshes well with Tom Brady as the quarterback has set a franchise mark with 36 touchdown passes while throwing for 4,234 yards and 11 interceptions.
The Buccaneers are also hoping to have running back Ronald Jones II (900 rushing yards) back on the field. Jones came off the reserve/COVID-19 list but still is dealing with a fractured pinkie. He was limited in practice Wednesday, as was cornerback Carlton Davis (groin) and linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (knee).
While Tampa Bay is seeking a fourth straight victory, the Falcons are hoping to avoid a fifth straight loss.
In fact, Atlanta fans won't be overly crushed with another loss as many are consumed with the 2021 draft order. Only two teams -- the New York Jets (2-13) and Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14) -- have fewer victories than the Falcons.
"Our fan base is very knowledgeable and that's their job to cheer for those types of things, but our job is to go out and win football games," interim head coach Raheem Morris said. "We really love those guys, we really love Atlanta, we love everything we stand for, and when that time comes we'll address those accordingly."
Morris replaced Dan Quinn after the team's 0-5 start and temporarily had things moving in the right direction with four wins in six games. The final game in that stretch was a 43-6 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.
But the Falcons lost all four of their December games. The losses were all close with the margin of defeats by a combined 15 points.
The season as a whole leaves veteran quarterback Matt Ryan with mixed feelings. He sees all the chances his squad squandered but he feels optimistic about the near future.
"I feel like we've got a good core group of guys here that you can build on and I think we've been competitive," Ryan said. "We just haven't found a way to get the job done in finishing situations enough this year and it's something we definitely have to improve at moving forward."
Veteran receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) didn't practice Wednesday and could miss his third straight game.
--Field Level Media