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Bucs Dominate Panthers in Division-Clinching Win

The Bucs got key contributions from the likes of Cyril Grayson and Ke'Shawn Vaughn and the defense allowed just two field goals while recording sevens sacks in a 32-6 blowout in Charlotte that locked up the NFC South

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a new-look roster to Charlotte and came away with a new prize. With a 32-6 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, which included significant contributions from former reserves, the Buccaneers clinched the 2021 NFC South title.

"Yeah, we wanted to hang three banners this year," said Head Coach Bruce Arians, whose 2020 squad won Super Bowl LV but did so as a Wild Card team. "We don't have one of those division banners up there for a long time. It feels great. This is what we focused on, to win our division, and our guys did it today. I can't be more proud of the group that did it today."

Ronald Jones and Ke'Shawn Vaughn ran for touchdowns, Tom Brady ran for 232 yards and a touchdown to Cameron Brate and the Buccaneers' defense sacked quarterbacks Cam Newton and Sam Darnold seven times. A defense that has gradually gotten key contributors back in the secondary surrendered just two field goals one week after limiting the Saints to three field goals in a 9-0 loss. This marks just the third time in team history, and the first time since the beginning of 2003, that the Buccaneers have held consecutive opponents without a touchdown.

"After last week, there was a little sour taste in our mouth still," said safety Jordan Whitehead. "Coach [Todd] Bowles, he challenged us this week to score points on defense, challenge us to get turnovers and just play with a lot of energy. That was really the main focus today on my side, defensively. We just kind of all came together, another game of no touchdowns – that was our goal."

The Buccaneers improved to 11-4 with the victory, marking the first time in franchise history that the team has won 11 or more games in two consecutive seasons. The Bucs now have a 3.5-game lead over New Orleans in the division, with the Saints set to play Miami on Monday night. At best, the Saints would finish the week three games back with two to play, which is why the division is locked up. The Buccaneers also kept pace in the top-heavy conference seeding race with the Los Angeles Rams, who beat Minnesota to improve to 11-4. The 12-3 Green Bay Packers own the top seed and the 10-4 Dallas Cowboys play on Sunday.

"It's amazing to finally get to raise that kind of banner," said DL Will Gholston. "I get to play with a group of guys that I love dearly and for some coaches that I really and truly care about. I'd run through a brick wall for those guys. To see everything come to fruition is amazing."

After a string of costly injuries and a week of roster shuffling, the Buccaneers got big contributions from some reserves stepping into more prominent roles. With Chris Godwin and Mike Evans out, wide receiver Cyril Grayson was elevated from the practice squad and was able to contribute 95 yards from scrimmage, including a 62-yard catch that set up Brady's four-yard touchdown pass to Brate in the second quarter. That was just Grayson's second catch of the year and the third of his career. The first touchdown of the game came on a 55-yard breakaway run by Vaughn – just his 12th carry of 2021 – who split time with Jones in the absence of Leonard Fournette. Grayson also had a key downfield block on Vaughn's touchdown, which is the Bucs' longest run of the season. Vaughn finished with 70 yards on seven carries as the Bucs rushed for 159 yards overall and 5.1 yards per carry.

"With football, we know that injuries are part of the game, but I also think it shows that the type of depth that we have as a team," said Grayson. "Even when you're down to the two and threes, there are some guys that are going to step up and put in their hand in the pile and fight as hard as they can so we can help this team win."

Jones had a much bigger role in the offense, too, picking up 81 yards of offense and scoring the Bucs' final touchdown in the third quarter on a seven yard run.

View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 16 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.

RB Kenjon Barner also came up from the practice squad for the game and took over the punt and kickoff return jobs. His 20-yard punt return early in the second half put the ball at midfield and set up one of Ryan Succop's four field goals. OLBs Cam Gill and Anthony Nelson had to pick up extra snaps after Shaquil Barrett left the game with a knee injury just before the half, and Nelson recorded one of the Bucs' seven sacks on the afternoon. Veteran ILB Kevin Minter filled in for an injured Lavonte David and had five tackles and a sack.

"I was so proud of everybody," said Arians. "We had so many guys that stepped up and stepped in. I had a lot of trust in them. Everybody that stepped in the huddle we trusted. Cyril made a great effort play on Ke'Shawn's run and a big play also. He's played big each time he's gotten his opportunity. Really happy to see Ke'Shawn run that ball the way he did."

Of course, the Buccaneers needed output from some of their more established performers to outdo in the Panthers in total yards, 391 to 273 (82 of which came on a final drive after the Buccaneers brought in a second-string defense. WR Antonio Brown returned from an eight-game absence to be Brady's favorite target, catching 10 passes on 15 targets for 101 yards. Brate's touchdown was his third of the season and the 32nd of his career. Brady led an efficient offense and wasn't sacked behind an offensive line that placed three starters in the Pro Bowl this past week.

"He's been itching to get back out there," said Brady of Brown. "He's just putting him in a position to succeed. Everyone's happy when he's out there making plays for us. He does a great job for the quarterbacks, makes a lot of critical plays, a lot of tough catches. I had him on some other chances when I was going to him, ran some good routes, the ball just got knocked away. It was a great performance by him. He did a great job."

On defense, Barrett had a sack, two tackles for a loss and two passes defensed in one half of play and Gholston set a new career-high with 2.5 sacks. The Buccaneers' seven sacks was their most in a single game since 2013. But it was Whitehead who led the Bucs' charged-up defensive effort with seven tackles, one interception and three passes defensed, twice stopping Newton cold on designed runs near the line of scrimmage.

"We really challenged our defensive backs, particularly, to lock down all the receivers," said Whitehead. "We've got great corners and great safeties, then we've got the best front seven in the league and Devin [White] and Lavonte out there. We're just trying to do our job, so when it comes down to the stretch and we're asked to make plays in the back end, we're out here to do it."

The Panthers, as planned, switched back and forth from Newton to Darnold throughout the game, but neither had much success against the Bucs' defense, at least in the air. Darnold completed only 15 of his 32 passes for 190 yards and Newton was seven-of-13 for 61 yards and one interception. They combined for a passer rating of 56.8.

"Our defense stepped up all year – all the injuries were on defense," said Arians, who indicated that Barrett's injury appears to be a minor MCL strain. "They fought through it. Now everybody's pretty healthy; hopefully we didn't lose Shaq. So yeah, with the secondary healthy we can do a lot of different things."

The Buccaneers got one first down on the game's opening possession on a third-and-one run by Jones. But after Jones got another four yards on the next first down, Brady's next two passes were incomplete and the Bucs had to punt, with Carolina taking over at their own 30.

The Panthers turned their first possession into three points on a nine-play, 64-yard drive ending in new Carolina kicker Lirim Hajrullahu's 24-yard field goal. Newton converted an early third-and-eight, after a Gholston sack, with a 10-yard pass to D.J. Moore, then kept it himself on the next play, running for 33 yards down to the 11. The Bucs' defense held inside the 10 after Barrett made up for a neutral zone infraction penalty with a tackle for loss on Ameer Abdullah on second-and-short.

The Bucs did score on their second possession, going 75 yards on five plays, the last one a 55-yard touchdown run by Vaughn. Jones got 13 yards on a middle screen, following a block by Ali Marpet, and Vaughn broke through the line on the next snap for his first career rushing touchdown, getting the last 20 yards by twice changing directions behind downfield blocks by Grayson.

Meanwhile, Carolina's second possession didn't go nearly as well as the first. After a nice open-field tackle of Newton put the Panthers in a third-and-four, Sean Murphy-Bunting deflected a pass intended for Moore, but the ball then bounced off Moore's helmets and into his hands for a first down at the Panthers' 46. Murphy-Bunting successfully broke up the next play and a big blitz hurried Newton into an ill-advised lob that went directly to Barrett. Barrett didn't manage to hold onto it but Whitehead hauled it in and returned it seven yards to the Bucs' 49.

The Bucs turned that takeaway into three points. The drive nearly stalled early after a pass-interference call on Brown, but Brady converted a third-and-13 with a deep comebacker to Brown for 19 yards. Three straight runs by Jones got the Bucs a first down at the Panthers' 23 but the Bucs stalled there and Succop came on to drill a 36-yard field goal.

Carolina quickly got back into scoring range with a big gain on a broken play. The Bucs nearly sacked Darnold, who had replaced Newton under center, but Darnold escaped and found a wide-open Shi Smith on the right sideline for a gain of 63 yards down to the Bucs' 10. Jamel Dean was able to catch up and push Smith out of bounds, which ended up saving four points. The Panthers alternated between Newton and Darnold on the next sequence but a Newton run was bottled up and Barrett sacked Darnold on third-and-goal. The Panthers once again sent out Hajrullahu and he hit a 29-yarder to make it 10-6 midway through the second quarter.

The Bucs countered with a 50-yard field goal drive, keyed by second receptions of 10 and 22 yards by Brown. However, Brate and O.J. Howard collided it on a quick third-and-three pass attempt and neither caught Brady's pass in their direction. Succop pushed the Bucs' lead back to seven points with a 43-yard kick that split the uprights with 2:40 left in the half.

The Bucs' defense got a three-and-out and the Bucs used their last two timeouts to get the ball back a their own 31 with 1:41 left in the half. It only took one play to get the ball into scoring range, as Brady found Grayson streaking down the right sideline and hit him in stride for a 62-yard gain down to the Panthers' seven. The Bucs then faced a third-and-goal at the four and Brate cut across the middle to find a wide-open area just across the goal line, catching the 32nd touchdown pass of his career.

The speed with which the Bucs score left the Panthers with 80 seconds and a chance to counter, and their drive got off to a good start when a blitzing Whitehead was flagged for roughing the passer. However, the defense held there and Carolina had to punt again with 44 seconds left, and the Bucs had 35 seconds to work with when they got it back at their 17. The Bucs simply ran out the clock and took a 13-point lead into halftime.

Carolina got the ball first to start the second half but had to begin at their own 14 due to a penalty on the kickoff return. Newton came back into the game and the Panthers went into a hurry-up, getting one first down and then missing on a very deep pass to Robby Anderson. Another incompletion made it third-and-10 and Nelson sacked Newton for a loss of eight back to the 19, leading to a punt.

A 20-yard return by Barner allowed the Bucs to start their next drive near midfield and Brady converted a third-and-seven with a 13-yard dart to a sliding Brown. Two plays later, Rob Gronkowski got wide open downfield and Brady found him for a gain of 23 down to the Panthers' nine. A holding call on Jeremy Chinn took it down to the four, but the Bucs had to settle for Succop's third field goal, a 21-yarder, after S Myles Hartsfield broke up a third-down fade pass intended for Gronkowski.

Carolina's next drive went backward 10 yards as Whitehead tripped up Newton for no gain on a designed sweep, then made a leaping deflection of a second-down pass. On third down, Newton couldn't find a target and eventually had the pocket collapse on him, with Vea getting the 10-yard sack.

The Bucs got good field position again, starting at their own 43 and getting across midfield on an 11-yard out to Brown. Brady took care of matters himself two plays later with an 11-yard scramble up the middle, down to the Panthers' 33. An end-around by Grayson got 14 on the next snap and Brady hit him again for 12 yards one snap later. That made it first-and-goal at the seven and a sweep left by Jones out of the shotgun finished the drive as he jogged in untouched. Succop's extra point made it 29-6 with two minutes left in the third quarter.

With Darnold back in the game, Moore made a juggling 19-yard catch on third down to get the Panthers' next drive started. After the two teams switched sides to start the fourth quarter, Darnold got the ball down to the Bucs' 23 on a 13-yard third-down strike to Anderson. However, Gholston and Steve McLendon split a sack two plays later and the Panthers eventually chose to go for it on fourth-and-11. Vita Vea streaked in to hit Darnold as he threw, forcing an incompletion and a changeover on downs.

The Bucs next drive was a quick three-and-out and a holding penalty on Tampa Bay on the punt gave the Panthers a drive starting right on the midfield stripe. They went backwards from there, with three Darnold incompletions and a seven-yard sack by Minter on fourth down. After taking over on downs, the Bucs got it down to the Carolina 29 on a 16-yard Jones run around right end. The drive stalled after that, however, and Succop hit his fourth field goal in four tries, this one from 48 yards out.

Carolina went nowhere once again on their next drive thanks to another sack by Gholston and a third-down hit on Darnold by McClendon. Brady got one first down on the next drive with a 10-yard pass to Brown on third-and-four, and then gave way to Blaine Gabbert for the game's final four minutes. The Bucs also gave the newly-signed Le'Veon Bell a few carries but the drive ended quickly after that and the Bucs punted with 2:16 left.

The Bucs brought in a full complement of defensive reserves at the two-minute warning. Anderson got 18 yards to the Panthers 29 on a quick throw down the line and then 14 more on a quick out. A blitzing K.J. Britt hit Darnold as he threw to break up the next pass, and two plays later Darnold found Smith over the middle for 17 down to the Bucs' 28, then scrambled for 11 more. After using their final timeout with 20 seconds left, the Panthers had a third-and-four at the Bucs' 11. A defensive holding call on Andrew Adams put the ball at the six with six seconds to play but the Bucs broke up two more passes in the end zone to prevent the touchdown.

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