The Carolina Panthers, with nothing to lose in Week 18 of the 2021 season, tried six fourth-down plays on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. But it was the one fourth down the Panthers didn't go for that led to a massive momentum swing in what was eventually an overwhelming 41-17 victory by the Buccaneers.
With the win, their third in a row and seventh in their last eight outings, the Buccaneers improved to 13-4, the best regular-season mark in franchise history. When the Los Angeles Rams subsequently lost to the San Francisco 49ers in overtime, the Buccaneers moved up to the second seed in the NFC playoff standings and will begin the postseason next weekend at home against the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Eagles.
"In the end it's a great achievement to get the two-seed, and it just felt good to win today," said QB Tom Brady, who threw three touchdown passes to give him a team-record 43 on the season. "With other teams, you can't ever control any of those things."
WR Mike Evans, who scored two touchdowns to help the Bucs pull away in the second half, said the team is thrilled to be at home to start their potential Super Bowl defense.
"The fans have made it so easy for us with the energy that they bring," he said. "It's something that I'm not used to in the past – no offense to the Bucs' fans. It was really on us. We weren't winning, and now we're winning and it looks great out there. I talk to the guys about it all the time: 'Don't take it for granted because it can definitely be different. Our fans have done a hell of a job this year and hopefully RayJay will be rocking. Hopefully we have the playoffs at home the whole time.
The Buccaneers started slowly on both sides of the ball, allowing a 14-play drive ending in a Chuba Hubbard two-yard touchdown catch on the game's opening possession and going three-and-out on two of their first three drives on offense. After the Panthers punted from the Bucs' 43-yard line just after the two-minute warning – presumably to avoid giving Brady a short field before halftime – the Buccaneers' offense caught fire. Brady hit Evans on a 37-yard pass on third-and-eight to launch a 92-yard drive ending in a one-yard touchdown catch by Le'Veon Bell. WR Breshad Perriman contributed an amazing 24-yard toe-dragging catch at the Panthers' four to set up Bell's score, which gave the Buccaneers a lead they would never relinquish.
"The big play in the game was Breshad Perriman's catch right before half," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "These guys stepped up and played and I can't say enough about them. And yeah, 13 wins brother, that's hard to do."
The Buccaneers also got the ball to start the second half and a 42-yard catch by Rob Gronkowski sparked a 77-yard drive ending in Ke'Shawn Vaughn's one-yard touchdown run. The Buccaneers would go on to put up 269 yards in the second half, with Brady throwing two more touchdown passes to Mike Evans and Ryan Succop adding his second field goal. The result was a season sweep of the Panthers, marking the first time Tampa Bay has ever done that two years in a row.
"There was never any doubt," said Arians. "It was just a matter of 'let's get going.' Normally when we go no-huddle we kick off pretty good. We didn't do it early in the game but the two-minute drive convinced us that's the way we need to play in the second half. Defensively, we just gave up too many RPOs (run-pass options) and they did a nice job with them. We'll correct it and get better."
Brady started the game with a couple errant throws but settled into a groove and was masterful for the game's final 32 minutes. He finished with 29 completions in 37 attempts for 326 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 130.4 passer rating. He found Gronkowski and Evans repeatedly, completing seven passes for 137 yards to the tight end and connecting with his top receiver six times on seven targets for 89 yards and those two scores. The touchdown drives just before and after the half were the difference in the game, as was an overall disciplined effort that produced no turnovers and just two penalties for 10 yards.
"It's good when you get a double-score like that," said Brady. "Fourteen points and they don't touch the ball is pretty good. Guys made a bunch of big plays. Gronk obviously played great. Mike played huge. … Today got off to a little bit of a rough start but we found a way to get some rhythm, and when we do that it's pretty good. We did a good job of taking care of the football today, we did a good job with penalties, good job in the red area, good job on third downs. We're going to have to keep it going."
All three players hit significant milestones along the way. Brady finished the season with 5,316 passing yards and those 43 touchdowns, both new single-season records for the Buccaneers, in the process joining Drew Brees as the only players in NFL history with multiple 5,000-yard seasons. Brady finished with the third-highest passing yardage total in league annals, after Peyton Manning's 5,477 in 2013 and Drew Brees's 5,476 in 2011.
"It's amazing the records [they set]," said Arians. "It seemed like there were five or six every week."
Gronkowski recorded his third 100-yard game of the season, giving him 32 in his career to break a tie with Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez for the most in league history. Evans extended his league-record streak of consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons to open a career to eight, and he joined four Hall of Famers (Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison) and one 2022 Hall of Fame finalist (Torry Holt) as the only players to have eight straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons at any point in there careers. Evans also broke the Buccaneers' single-season record for overall touchdowns and touchdown receptions with 14.
After the game, Evans focused on all of the other players who have stepped up this season as the Buccaneers have dealt with a long list of injuries, far more than they had on their way to the Super Bowl LV title last year.
"I mean, [this is] some of the best I've ever been around," said Evans. "The guys' mentality has been great. It's been a next-man-up mentality all year, really. We haven't had our full team the whole season, and that's how it's had to be. We've had to adjust and it helps that we have a surplus amount of talent on this team for our guys to step up."
The Buccaneers' defense struggled to get off the field early and Carolina possessed the ball for nearly 22 of the game's first 30 minutes. The Panthers came into the game with just five wins and a six-game losing streak and signaled their intentions early by going for it on fourth-and-one from their own 34 in the first quarter. They converted that but ended the drive six plays later with another fourth-down attempt that came up empty in Bucs territory.
The most critical of Carolina's half-dozen fourth-down attempts, however, came with five minutes left in the first half. The Panthers had driven 73 yards to the Bucs' two and were close to taking a 14-3 lead before halftime. For the second week in a row, the Tampa Bay defense made a critical stop on a fourth-down QB sneak attempt – it was Zach Wilson and the Jets last Sunday just before the Bucs' game-winning drive – with DL Steve McLendon getting credit for the fourth-and-inches stop at the Bucs' two. Carolina challenged the spot but the call was upheld.
"I think it just goes back to our preparation and our coaching," said DL Vita Vea. "I think Coach [Todd] Bowles put us in a good call to stop it. Whenever we got stops like that, that's us on the field but as much as it is on the coaches. Coach Bowles always puts us in the best situation possible for us and we've just got to go out and execute it, which we did.
As was the case against the Jets, the big stop on defense ignited the Bucs' offense.
"The first couple drives were pretty crappy, no doubt, and we can't have that going forward," said Gronkowski. "Every game now on out is do-or-die, it's going to be the playoffs and that's going to hurt us big time if we go out there and we have three drives for 20 yards in the playoffs. We just woke up, I would say. We just woke up as an offense and started firing. We were just flat the first three possession and we can't have that if we want to win in the playoffs."
Like their offense, the Buccaneers' defense picked things up considerably in the second half, allowing just 129 yards of offense and one scoring drive. An increasingly desperate Carolina offense was knocked off the field without a first down on seven of their last nine drives, and two fourth-quarter possessions ended in the game's only turnovers, a Sam Darnold fumble (forced by Rakeem Nunez-Roches and recovered by Antoine Winfield, Jr.) and an Andrew Adams interception. The Buccaneers were able to pull their starters on both sides of the ball for the last five minutes of the game.
The Bucs' regular-season finale came at the end of a tumultuous week that saw the Thursday release of WR Antonio Brown. The offense was also without running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones and WR Cyril Grayson left with a hamstring injury early in Thursday's game. While mainstays Evans and Gronkowski supplied much of the offensive firepower the Bucs also got touchdowns from Bell and Vaughn, as well as WR Scotty Miller, who scored on a 33-yard end-around in the fourth quarter.
"13 wins and it hasn't been easy," said Arians. "We've had a lot of guys down all season. Different guys have stepped up. Jason and Spy and all of those guys have put together a hell of a roster and we kept adding to it with veteran players as the season went on. Le'Veon, Breshad Perriman, all of those guys had a big hand in it today. I can't say enough about our front office having a great roster.
The Bucs' defense quickly put the Panthers into a third-and-long on the game's opening drive but CB Jamel Dean slipped as Darnold's pass was arriving at D.J. Moore, making it easy for Moore to gain 20 yards and keep the drive alive. A blitzing Devin White nearly got to Darnold in the backfield on the next play but the quarterback escaped and picked up five yards instead. A neutral-zone infraction penalty on Vea converted the next third down and made it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 41. Moore got 11 more on a well-blocked swing pass to the right. An Ameer Abdullah run up the middle three plays later gained 10 and made it first-and-goal at the six. Two plays later, Hubbard flared out to the left and Darnold hit him for a two-yard score.
The Bucs' defense did not match Carolina's hot start. Brady took a coverage sack on first down by blitzing S Myles Hartsfield and was nearly picked off on an errant throw over the middle on second down. A short pass to Tyler Johnson wasn't nearly enough and Bradley Pinion came on to punt it back to the Panthers' 25.
A 10-yard sack by Anthony Nelson and a leaping PBU by Jordan Whitehead put the Panthers into a third-and-20 hole but they still managed to move the sticks. Moore leaped over a defender at the end of a 19-yard catch and run and the Panthers elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from their own 34. Moore got the ball again, this time on an end-around, and found a seam for a gain of 13. Carolina had to call a timeout before a third-and-nine snap from the Bucs' 42 after Darnold was slow to get up following a two-yard scramble. A short pass to WR C.J. Saunders only got three yards on third down but once again the Panthers went for it on fourth down. Darnold tried to hit Moore deep down the left sideline but CB Carlton Davis kept with him step for step and was able to break it up.
The Bucs took over on downs to start the second quarter. Two Vaughn runs got 11 yards and a first down on the midfield stripe. This time it was the Bucs who forced the action, going for it on fourth-and-two from the Panthers' 42. It worked, as Brady moved up in the pocket to find time and found Evans crossing right to left for 14 yards to the Panthers' 28. Cam Brate's second catch of the drive made it third-and-three at the 21, but Brady missed Evans on an in-and-out pivot route and the Bucs' settled for Succop's 39-yard field goal.
The Panthers went on another extended drive on the ensuing possession but came up empty when the Bucs' defense got a stop inside its own 10 yards line. A defensive holding call and two Hubbard runs for seven and 19 yards quickly got the Panthers into scoring range and Carolina then converted a third-and-12 with a swing pass out to Abdullah in a wide-open right side of the field for an 18-yard gain. After Abdullah's nine-yard run got the ball down to the three, the Panthers went for it on fourth down again, this time needing only inches. Darnold tried to sneak it up the middle for the first down but was ruled down short of the sticks. Carolina challenged the spot but it was upheld.
The Bucs had to get the ball out of the shadow of their own end zone and did with two Vaughn runs for five yards but had to punt it back with 3:32 left after Brady was pressured into a third-down incompletion. Pinion angled his 42-yard punt out of bouncs at the Bucs' 48.
The Panthers cost themselves 10 yards to start the drive with an offensive pass interference call but got 13 back on a quick slant to Robby Anderson. It was third-and-five at the Bucs' 43 when the two-minute warning arrived. The Panthers tried a trick play with Darnold throwing backward to WR Brandon Zylstra, who then tried to throw it to Abdullah down the right side. Dean was close enough to make it a difficult play and the pass was out of Abdullah's reach.
Jaelon Darden fair caught Carolina's punt at the Bucs' eight. It was quickly third-and-10 but Brady found Evans over the middle and the receiver weaved all the way up to the 45 for a 37-yard gain. The Bucs used their first timeout and then Brady hit Gronkowski on consecutive plays for seven and 20 yards and Tampa Bay called another timeout with the ball at the Carolina 28 and 43 seconds left in the half. Breshad Perriman than made a dazzling catch with a spin and a sideline toe drag at the Panthers' four-yard line. Bell ran it down to the one and then the Bucs rushed up to the line and Brady faked it to Bell again before throwing it to him in the right flat for an easy score.
The Buccaneers got the ball to start the second half at their own 23. Two plays into the drive, Gronkowski got wide open down the middle of the field and Brady hit him for a gain of 42 yards to the Carolina 34. Another 19-yard catch by Gronkowski on the next play got the ball inside the 20 and Brady found Tyler Johnson for seven yards down to the two on third-and-four. The Buccaneers hustled up to the line and snapped the ball quickly, with Vaughn easily running it up the middle for the touchdown.
The two teams traded three-and-outs and Carolina got the ball back at their own 31 with 9:26 left in the third quarter. The Panthers got it back to a one-score game with a 52-yard field goal drive ending in Liram Hajrullahu's 35-yard boot. A 15-yard Hubbard run and a leaping 17-yard catch over the middle by Moore on consecutive plays got the ball to the Bucs' 25 but the pass rush then forced Darnold into two scrambles for little yardage and the drive stalled at the 17.
Darden gave the Bucs a nice boost for their next drive with a 34-yard kickoff return out to the 38. Mike Evans made a sliding catch for 10 yards on the first play. Three touches by Vaughn, two runs and one catch, left the Bucs in a third-and-inches at Carolina's 32. Vaughn got it again and powered for three yards and a first down. A 14-yard strike to Gronkowski on a route going right to left converted a third-and-three and made it first-and-goal at the eight. Two snaps later, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Evans ran a shallow out in the end zone and Brady hit him for a three-yard score.
Carolina answered with a 56-yard touchdown drive after Abdullah took Pinion's kickoff back close to midfield. Abdullah also got 15 yards on a short pass but the Bucs got the Panthers into a fourth-and-four at the 19. With a free blitzer closing in on fourth down, Darnold just got of a floater that Robby Anderson hauled in over the shoulder for the touchdown. The Bucs' lead was trimmed to seven points again with 10:34 left in regulation.
The Bucs' offense stayed in high gear to start the next drive, with a 28-yard catch-and-run by Gronkowski and a seven-yard draw by Bell. Perriman juked away from several would-be tacklers on a short catch and got the Bucs a first down at the Carolina 40. Three plays later, Brady went up top down the left sideline and Evans hauled it in as he ran across the goal line.
The Panthers quickly fell into a third-and-three, and the drive ended even more quickly. Darnold had to handle an off-target snap in the shotgun and thus wasn't able to get the handoff off to Abdullah in time. Darnold tried to run it up the middle himself but Nunez-Roches knocked the ball loose and Winfield recovered for the Buccaneers.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 27 on the game's first turnover and only got five yards with Blaine Gabbert at the helm, but Succop drilled a 40-yard field goal to give the Buccaneers a three-score lead with five minutes to play. Tampa Bay put in its defensive reserves for the next drive but still got a turnover on downs. That gave it back to the Buccaneer's offense at the Carolina 33, and the team also went to its backups on that side of the ball. It still only took one play to score, as Gabbert flipped it to Miller on an end-around and the speedy receiver darted through a seam on the right sideline and followed a downfield Robert Hainsey block into the end zone.
Obviously desperate to get the ball downfield, Darnold tried to go deep down the middle to Anderson but it was intercepted by Adams, who returned it 17 yards to the Carolina 40. Miller got another end-around going the other direction two plays later and got nine yards for a first down. The Bucs faced a third-and-eight at the two-minute warning and tried to throw for a first down but it was incomplete. Succop came on again to try a 46-yard field goal but slipped on his approach and ended up coming up a few yards short.
Carolina thus took over again at their own 36 but once again failed to gain a first down, and it took just one kneel-down by Tampa Bay to run out the clock.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 18 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.