Before 2020, the last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a playoff game on the road there wasn't much question as to who should get the Game Ball. Hint: 92-yard pick-six, shutting down the vet, sending the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl. Yeah, it was Ronde Barber. When you produce the most iconic play in franchise history, you're going to get a Game Ball, without question.
Well, now the Buccaneers have another postseason road win under their belts – a 31-23 Wild Card decision at Washington on Saturday night – but it's not quite as easy to single out one player who stood out above the rest. Tampa Bay's offense racked up 507 yards against a very good Washington defense, but it was a collective effort. Four different Buccaneers had at least 79 yards from scrimmage and three different players scored touchdowns. Obviously, it was Tom Brady distributing the ball for all of those gains, just basically being vintage postseason Tom Brady with 381 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and a 104.3 passer rating.
The Bucs' defense didn't have an iconic play like Barber's pick-six, but Sean Murphy-Bunting did have the visitors' one takeaway, a pick in the first quarter that led to the game's first touchdown drive. Lavonte David celebrated his long-awaited playoff debut by roaming all over the field for nine tackles, a sack and a pass defensed. Seven different Buc defenders broke up a pass, two by Carlton Davis, to help hold upstart Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke to a 78.4 passer rating. Oh, and the Bucs' kicker, veteran Ryan Succop, made all four of his field goals and scored 13 points. That was helpful.
So who should it be? Let's get together and decide. After every Buccaneers win this season, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are nominating one player each for a vote by the fans as to who deserves that week's Game Ball. The fans will then determine the winner in a poll at the bottom of this page, voting either for Carmen's choice or my choice…or if you aren't satisfied with the candidates we put forth, you can choose "other." Since we have decided not to duplicate picks in any given week, we're alternating the order of selection and it's my turn to go first.
Scott Smith: Mike Evans
Last week, Chris Godwin said he wouldn't want to be the one who had to tell Mike Evans he couldn't play in the Wild Card game after Evans had waited so long for that moment. You and me both, Chris. Fortunately, no one had to chain Evans to the bench because he had recovered enough from his scary-looking injury the weekend before to get clearance to play in Washington.
As it turned out, Evans wasn't just out there to be a decoy. Though he likely wasn't playing at 100 percent, Evans was immediately involved in the attack, catching Tom Brady's first completion for a gain of 15 yards with a facemask tacked on the end. That was the second play of the game and it was the biggest gain in a 70-yard field goal drive.
That would prove to be the only catch for Evans in the first half, but as the score started to tighten up in the second half Brady began to lean on his top receiver in the big moments. A 17-yarder down the middle led to a Succop field goal after Washington had pulled within two. A 20-yarder on the right sideline opened a touchdown drive, which finished on a Leonard Fournette run right after Evans got it down to the three with a 19-yard grab. And finally, a 35-yard catch by Evans down the left side was the big play in the Bucs' final scoring drive, which made it an eight-point game with three minutes to play. Tampa Bay's defense did the rest. Evans finished the game with six catches for 119 yards, the most ever by a Buccaneer in a playoff game.
Six days before the Wild Card game, it seemed nearly inconceivable that Evans would be able to play after he was helped into the locker room following his knee injury against the Falcons. Three days before the game, Evans still wasn't practicing. The Buccaneers did not make their final decision on his clearance until Saturday. But when the bell rang, Evans was out there, ready to dominate and help lead his team to the do-or-die victory in Washington. Give him the Game Ball!
Carmen Vitali: The Offensive Line
What Mike Evans was able to do on Saturday night, and the week leading up to it for that matter, was nothing short of incredible. He "lived in" the training room every day leading up to Saturday's contest in Washington according to Bruce Arians, so if you decide to give Evans your vote – far be it from me to stop you.
But Evans' performance doesn't happen without the guys up front giving Evans' quarterback, Tom Brady, time to get him the ball. Running back Leonard Fournette, who had the second most single-game scrimmage yards in franchise history with 132, doesn't happen without the guys up front run-blocking their little hearts out. Washington defensive end Chase Young doesn't get held without a sack or even quarterback hit without the guys up front, and especially those tackles on the edge, standing their ground.
And yes, Brady did take a couple sacks, but it was only after right guard Alex Cappa left the game with an ankle injury and can likely be chalked up to a lack of continuity considering two of the sacks were from interior defensive lineman Da'Ron Payne.
We had talked about all week that this game would come down to who could control the line of scrimmage, frankly on both sides of the ball, and the Bucs' offensive line did just that against one of the best defensive lines in the league. That's why I have to agree with my girl Kay Adams on Good Morning Football and give the game ball to them.