TAMPA, Fla. — The Buccaneers overcame two double-digit deficits to defeat the Carolina Panthers 30-24 Sunday, clinching the NFC South title for the second straight year and punching Tom Brady’s ticket to the playoffs for a 14th consecutive season and coach Todd Bowles’ first as Tampa Bay’s head coach.
On the brink of losing his voice and eager to deflect praise to his teammates, Brady gushed, “I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Players wore red shirts that read, “CONQUERED THE SOUTH.” Except for wide receiver Mike Evans. He had one of the best games of his career with 10 catches for 207 receiving yards and three touchdowns and rocked a Carolina blue Michael Jordan North Carolina Tar Heels jersey, gifted to him by teammate Chris Godwin in the team’s Secret Santa exchange last week.
And Bowles, who said jokingly after all those comebacks, “My heart ain’t got much left,” shared that he planned to celebrate not like his predecessor Bruce Arians with a bottle of Crown Royal (Arians was inducted into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor on Sunday) but with a glass of 1% milk and cookies.
“They didn’t get down and they didn’t get disgusted,” Bowles said of his team. “We’ve been through a lot this year, so we have a lot of resiliency and strength, so we don’t get down when we get down score-wise. They buckled down, they stayed together as a team and they came through .”
The Bucs had not come back from a deficit of 14 points or more throughout a season marred by slow starts and a nonexistent vertical passing game. And Brady and Evans’ streak of games without a touchdown had grown to 11 — the longest in the career of the Bucs’ franchise receiving leader.
But after falling behind 14-0 on Sunday, three touchdown passes from Brady to Evans and three turnovers forced by the defense made the difference.
“Tom was just dropping dimes,” said Evans, who rarely sees single coverage but did so Sunday, while the offensive line had one of its best games protecting Brady all season, affording him more time to throw and Evans more time to get downfield. “Those were some really, really good balls. This was one of the best games I’ve seen Tom play since he’s been here.
“They were like falling right in my … in the breadbasket every time. He had an unbelievable game.”
Brady said of Evans, “I love playing out there with him and he’s an amazing player — I’ve missed him too many times this year, so it was nice to connect with him and hopefully we can keep that going. I think we will.”
The first touchdown was a 63-yarder airmailed to Evans. The score gave Evans 1,000 receiving yards for the ninth consecutive season, tied for second most in NFL history with Tim Brown and behind only Jerry Rice. That touchdown changed the momentum completely with 2 minutes, 18 seconds to go in the first half.
“I was telling him all throughout the game — he’s that guy,” Godwin said of Evans. “He doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves, so any chance I get, I’m going to speak it for him because I know he won’t do it. Mike is a dog, man. Every time he goes out there , he’s capable of doing something like that. It’s an honor for me to play next to a guy like that.”
Inside linebacker Devin White recovered a Sam Darnold fumble at the Carolina 17-yard line moments later, and the Bucs cut the Panthers’ lead to 14-10 with a 22-yard field goal from Ryan Succop.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted Darnold at the Tampa Bay 2 on the Panthers’ first drive of the second half, but on the Bucs’ ensuing drive, a 26-yard field goal attempt by Succop was blocked by CJ Henderson.
The Bucs slipped into a 21-10 deficit after Darnold threw a touchdown strike to Shi Smith to open the fourth quarter. But Brady responded immediately with a 57-yard heave to Evans — marking the first time since 2016 that the 45-year-old QB has thrown two 50-plus-yard touchdowns in the same game. The score was followed by a failed 2-point conversion, cutting the Panthers’ lead to 21-16 with 13:49 to go.
Brady still wasn’t done finding his top receiver, as he connected with Evans for 30 yards on their third touchdown to give the Bucs the lead with 6:47 remaining. A successful 2-point conversion pass to Godwin put Tampa Bay up 24-21.
A sack by outside linebacker Anthony Nelson caused a fumble that was then recovered by defensive tackle Vita Vea, setting up what would have been a touchdown by Leonard Fournette, although it was taken off the board after it was ruled that he was a yard short. That’s when Brady punched in a quarterback sneak from the goal line with two minutes left, prompting “Brady! Brady! Brady!” chants from the crowd.
“It’s almost like a sick joke because you’re just sitting on the sideline 14-0 and you’re like, ‘[No.] 12 will do something. He’ll figure it out,'” Nelson said. “And eventually, maybe it’s not that quarter, it’s a quarter later — he starts making a couple plays, it’s tied up, it’s a close game again, and that really motivates us as a defense because we know, even when it’s 14-0, if we can hold ’em, 12 and the offense will get us back in the game.”
Carolina added a field goal with 59 seconds left to make it 30-24, and the Bucs narrowly avoided what could have been disaster had it not been for the quick thinking of rookie punter Jake Camarda, who recovered a low snap that hit the ground, tucked it and ran with it and punted 41 yards as opposed to merely falling on it, which would have given the Panthers prime field position at the Bucs’ 40. Instead, the Bucs were flagged for an ineligible downfield kick and Camarda executed a 41- yard punt on the next play.
“I have never seen a punter make an athletic play like that,” Bowles said. “He did a heck of a job down there.”
Sunday marked the first win for the Bucs in the eight games this season in which they have surrendered 20 or more points to the opposition.
Brady and the Bucs still have one game remaining at the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday, but their playoff position is solidified no matter what. By winning the division, they will host the first round of the playoffs, against either the Philadelphia Eagles or the Dallas Cowboys.
No decision has been made yet as to whether Brady will play next week in an effort to avoid unnecessary risk, but the QB indicated that he would prefer to.
“It’s always up to Coach, but yeah, [not playing] would bother me. I haven’t missed a game other than my ACL [injury] … and then in 2016, I missed the first four games. Other than that, I’ve played them all,” Brady said, referring to his four-game suspension after an NFL investigation determined that he had been “at least generally aware” of the New England Patriots deflating footballs the previous season.
After a long pause, he smiled and said, “I was being polite there,” with the room full of reporters erupting in laughter. “It takes a lot for me to be polite.”