The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied from 14-0 and 21-10 deficits to beat the Carolina Panthers, 30-24, on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, in the process defending their 2021 NFC South title. It marks the first time in franchise history that the Buccaneers have won consecutive division crowns.
Tom Brady had his best game of the season, completing 34 of 45 passes for 432 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 127.3. He heard it from an adoring Buccaneer crowd that began chanting his name after he scored what would prove to be the game-winning points on a quarterback sneak with two minutes left. Brady punctuated his score with a spike in the end zone that would have made his pal Rob Gronkowski proud.
"It felt great," said Brady. "I'm really proud of our guys and everyone on the team, coaches. We powered through a lot of tough things this year. Happy to win the division; it's always tough to do it. NFL games are tough to win and we always figure out a way to keep them somehow exciting. I wish they wouldn't be as exciting as we made it, but I'm happy we got the win and happy so many guys contributed."
Brady's top target was WR Mike Evans, who caught 10 passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first player in team history to record 200+ receiving yards and three scores in a single game. He also extended his streak of consecutive seasons with 1,000 receiving yards to nine, becoming the first NFL player to open his career with such a streak. WR Chris Godwin also racked up 120 yards on nine receptions and the Buccaneers had two 100-yard receivers in the same game for the first time since Evans and Antonio Brown did it in October of 2021.
"He had time to throw it a little bit more," said Head Coach Todd Bowles of the welcome return of a productive connection between Brady and Evans after some recent difficulties. "He had some time to throw it, Mike had some time to get down the field and they connected.'
The Buccaneers improved to 8-8 with the victory and rendered their final game in Atlanta next Sunday virtually meaningless by clinching the division a week early. Had they not mounted a successful comeback, the Panthers would have been in control of the division with one week to go. The Buccaneers may or may rest some players against the Falcons and will finish either 9-8 or 8-9. That locks them into the fourth seed in the NFC playoff field as the division winner with the worst record, but that final win-loss record is now irrelevant. The Buccaneers believe they can be dangerous in the postseason.
"I think so," said T Tristan Wirfs. "I'm excited. We've just got to get to the dance. Whatever happened the rest of the season, as frustrating as it was, it doesn't matter now. Now we've just got to keep rolling."
The Buccaneers won the same day that the team inducted former Head Coach Bruce Arians into their Ring of Honor. Arians stepped down after the 2021 season and Bowles was promoted to head coach. With some changes in the roster and some key injuries, the Buccaneers have struggled to match the explosive scoring that was their trademark the past two seasons, but they honored Arians with a 478-yard day on Sunday.
"No risk-it, no biscuit," said Bowles with a smile after the game, appropriating Arians' philosophical motto. "We make it interesting. Obviously, that's a big thing. We wanted him to go in with a winning note. That's huge because of the legacy he left on this team."
Carolina took the opening possession 75 yards for a touchdown, with Sam Darnold throwing the first of his three touchdown passes, this one a 17-yarder to TE Tommy Tremble, and the visitors made it 14-0 in the second quarter on Darnold's 24-yard TD strike to WR D.J. Moore. However, the Buccaneers were able to swing the momentum before halftime with one big play each by the offense and defense. With three minutes left in the half, Brady lofted a deep, arcing pass down the right sideline and Evans ran under it and caught it in stride for a 63-yard touchdown.
The defense followed with a takeaway just two plays later, as Devin White closed in quickly to hit Darnold after the Panthers quarterback had dropped a snap and then got his hands on the bouncing ball at the Carolina 17. The Bucs stalled inside the five but did come away with three points on Ryan Succop's 22-yard field goal.
After a scoreless fourth quarter, Darnold gave the Panthers a 21-10 lead early in the fourth period with a 19-yard touchdown pass to WR Shi Smith. This came immediately after the Buccaneers had come up empty on a 90-yard drive, which ended in a blocked Ryan Succop field goal attempt, and seemed to give the visiting team the full measure of momentum. Instead, Brady answered immediately with a three-play drive ending in Evans' 57-yard touchdown catch. After a Carolina punt, the Bucs mounted another lengthy drive, this one covering 92 yards and ending in Evans' 30-yard score. All three of Evans' touchdowns were simple go routes down the right sideline, and all three were pinpoint passes that the receiver caught on the run.
"They played a lot of Cover One and Tom was just dropping dimes," said Evans. "Those were some really, really good balls, some of the best I've seen [from] Tom. This is one of the best games I've seen Tom play since he's been here. They fell right into my breadbasket every time. He had an unbelievable day."
Two plays after Evans' third score, which gave the Bucs their first lead of the day, OLB Anthony Nelson forced a turnover with a strip sack of Darnold, with DL Vita Vea recovering at the Panthers' six. Leonard Fournette appeared to score on the play but it was spotted a half-yard short on review and Brady took it in himself on the next play.
The Panthers came to Tampa following a win over Detroit in Week 16 in which they ran for a team record 320 yards, and they had averaged close to 200 yards rushing in their six wins. However, Carolina came out throwing, making good use of play action, including a 26-yard pass to Moore on the game's first snap. Tampa Bay's defense held the Carolina backfield tandem of D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard to a combined 47 rushing yards and the team as a whole to 74 yards on the ground and 3.4 yards per carry. The Bucs finished with 33:10 minutes of possession.
"We wanted to make them beat us through the air," said Bowles, and the Bucs' defense played a lot of single-high safety looks to get more defenders around the line of scrimmage. "We didn't think they could beat us through the air, so we tried to take those two guys away on the ground because we wanted to win time of possession."
The Buccaneers had several other miscues on special teams, including a 53-yard field goal try that came up short early in the second quarter and Succop's first unsuccessful extra point try of the season. However, they were also saved from potential disaster by a remarkable play in the kicking game by rookie Jake Camarda. After Brady's touchdown, the Panthers drove for a field goal and then tried an onside kick that rookie TE Jake Otton fielded cleanly. Carolina still had all three of its timeouts and was able to force a punt with 30 seconds left. LS Zach Triner's snap was low and Camarda couldn't get off a punt after fielding it on a bounce. Instead, he raced around left end and bought time to boot it downfield on the run, with the ball rolling down to the two. The kick was called back by an unrelated penalty, but Camarda was able to take another shot and he forced a fair catch at the Carolina eight.
The Buccaneers' defense gave up exactly 400 yards of offense but was consistently able to come up with big plays. In addition to Nelson's turnover, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. also had a sack on a blitz, while CB Sean Murphy-Bunting made a leaping interception at the Bucs' two-yard line in the third quarter. Lavonte David led the defense with eight tackles and a big tackle for loss that helped kill a Carolina drive.
The Panthers got the ball first after a touchback and started with a play-action pass, with Darnold having a long time in the pocket to find Moore all the way down at the Bucs' 49. Another play-action pass lead to a tunnel screen to Smith, who got 11 more after breaking a tackle. Four snaps later, a pass-interference call on Winfield made it first-and-10 at the 17. Another long-developing play on the next snap allowed Darnold to thread a 17-yard pass between three defenders to Tremble for the game's first touchdown.
The Bucs also opened with a play-action pass and Evans drew a defensive holding call for a quick five yards. Rachaad White took a shotgun handoff on the next play and picked his way through the middle for a gain of seven; he pounded his way through tacklers on the next snap for a first down at the 42. However, a holding flag on Donovan Smith backed the Bucs up 10 yards and Evans couldn't quite haul in a deep ball down the left sideline on first down. A crossing route to Julio Jones made it a more manageable third-and-10. Brady moved around in the pocket to buy time to find Godwin down the middle for a first down, but Godwin had the ball punched out of his hands while fighting for extra yards. Carolina recovered at their own 33.
Another tunnel screen, this time to Laviska Shenault, left the Panthers in a third-and-one at their 42 and David came up with a huge stop on Darnold as he attempted a sneak. The Panthers chose to punt and Deven Thompkins fair caught the ball at the Bucs' 17.
Brady faked another handoff to Fournette and then located Godwin down the right hashes for a gain of 21 to kick start the Bucs' second drive. Two Fournette runs put the Bucs into a third-and-seven at their own 41, and the drive ended when DE Yetur Gross-Matos got around the edge and sacked Brady back at the 35. Jake Camarda's punt pushed the ball back to Carolina's 24.
OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka chased Darnold into a hurried throwaway on a first-down play fake and ILB Devin White wasn't fooled by Darnold keeping the ball on an RPO. The Panthers tried to set up a screen on third-and-10 but a Bucs blitz blew it up quickly and Darnold spiked the ball at the back's feet. Thompkins fair caught another punt at the Bucs' 19.
Two quick passes to Evans out to the right added up to 11 yards, as Evans made a dazzling grab of a low pass on second down. A nifty spin move by White allowed him to get free for a six-yard gain on a second-down catch, and Brady kept the drive alive with a dart to WR Russell Gage over the middle between two defenders. A two-yard White run brought the first quarter to a close. White opened the second period with a seven-yard catch to make it third-and-one just across midfield but it was fourth-and-one after a shotgun handoff to White failed to get the needed yard. The Bucs left their offense on the field and Brady's sneak got just enough. Evans ran an in-and-out route on first down and slid to make a 13-yard catch at the 34. The drive then stalled at the 35 and Succop came on to try a 53-yard field goal. He came up short and the Panthers took over at their own 43.
Darnold slid left in the pocket and fired a 15-yard completion to WR Terrace Marshall. CB Sean Murphy-Bunting caused Marshall to fumble but the ball rolled harmlessly out of bounds. Two runs made it third-and-three at the Bucs' 36 and Shenault couldn't hold on to a shallow out pass. The Panthers went for it on fourth down and Darnold hit Moore just in bounds on the left sideline for a first down at the 29. Will Gholston got into the backfield to drop Foreman for a loss of two, leading to a third-and-five at the Bucs' 24. Darnold went over the top on third down and dropped the ball into Moore's hands just as he was crossing the goal line, with Winfield in tight coverage.
The Bucs got the ball back with eight minutes left in the half, trailing 14-0 but didn't hold it for long. Godwin was flagged for what was deemed a pick play to erase a Cade Otton catch that got all the way into Carolina territory and Brady was sacked on third down, forcing the Bucs to punt away from their own 18. Rookie CB Zyon McCollum fought through blockers to get to return man Andre Roberts just as the ball arrived, and Roberts lost the ball but not before he got an elbow down.
Carolina's next drive started at its own 31 with five-and-a-half minutes left in the first half. The Panthers tried some trickery on the first snap, with Hubbard taking the snap and starting a reverse that ended in Moore getting stopped by Winfield for a loss of one. On third-and-eight, the Panthers split four receivers out wide and then ran Hubbard on a draw. The play worked well but Hubbard was stopped just short and the Panthers punted into the end zone for a touchback.
Brady got the Bucs moving on the ensuing drive by zipping a 12-yard slant into Godwin's chest on third-and-five. On the next play, Evans got free deep down the right sideline and Brady hit him stride with a long bomb. Evans ran it in for the 63-yard touchdown, the Bucs' second-longest play of the season.
The game's momentum continued to shift moments later. On second-and-eight from the 27, Darnold dropped a shotgun snap and was hit by an onrushing Devin White to keep him from picking the ball off the turf. The ball eventually ended up in White's hands at the 17 and he was able to get it to the 13 before being tackled.
Just past the two-minute warning, Brady threw down the line to Evans, who made a nice move to evade a tackler and get seven yards. Fournette's run up the gut got two, and on third-and-one from the four, Brady faked a handoff and tried to hit Otton on a shallow out but it was well-covered and incomplete. The Bucs sent out Succop on fourth down and he punched through a 22-yard field goal to make it 14-10.
A bouncing kickoff gave RB Raheem Blackshear room to build up speed on the ensuing kickoff and he got all the way out to the Carolina 38 with just over a minute left in the half. The fired-up Bucs defense would send the Panthers backward. Winfield blitzed around the left edge on first down and pounced on Darnold for an eight-yard sack, and David followed with a one-yard tackle for loss on the next play. The Bucs used their remaining timeouts to try to get the ball back one more time, but with only four seconds left in the half Darnold dropped back on fourth-and-18 and simply threw a very deep ball out of bounds to kill the clock.
The Bucs got the ball first on a touchback to start the next drive and Rachaad White bounced off two would-be tacklers on the second play of the drive to pick up 11 on a quick pass over the middle. The Bucs then faced a third-and-nine at the 37 and Brady's pass to Otton was out of reach. Camarda hit a 47-yard punt to move the Panthers back to their own 16.
Carolina threatened on their first drive of the half, getting into Bucs territory on a 32-yard catch down the middle by TE Giovanni Ricci, but the drive ended in a turnover. Darnold tried to hit TE Stephen Sullivan on a similar throw but Murphy-Bunting leapt in front of him for the interception, coming down at the Bucs' two-yard line.
The Bucs got out of that dangerous position in a hurry. Godwin caught a quick out and then turned it up the sideline for 18 yards, and an end-around by Jones was good for 13 more. Brady hit Godwin two more times to get across midfield then fired high over the middle to Evans, who leaped high to pull it down over a defender at the Carolina 23. Fournette's four-yard run got the ball into the red zone, and it was third-and-two at the 15 after a White catch. Otton couldn't hold on to a hard pass but the Bucs went for it on fourth down. Brady kept the drive alive with a five-yard strike to Gage, making it first-and-goal at the 10. It was third-and-goal after a short Fournette run and an incompletion, and Brady eventually had to throw it away on third down when he couldn't find anyone open. Succop came on to try a 26-yard field goal but it was blocked by Gross-Matos.
The Panthers took over at their own nine and finally got their run game going, with two runs for a total of 13 yards by Foreman. That set up a play-action deep shot to Moore, and even though Jamel Dean was right there with him as the pass came down, it was Moore who was able to haul it in at the Bucs' 31. Carolina backed up 10 yards on a holding call but the Bucs countered with a defensive holding call and the result was a first down at the 36. Moore got 14 on a quick pass down the line and the third quarter ended on a three-yard Foreman run.
On the first play of the fourth period, Murphy-Bunting stayed stride for stride with Shenault and knocked away the pass in the end zone. However, on third down Darnold had time to thrown and eventually found Smith at the front of the end zone for the 19-yard score to make it 21-10.
Otton drew a 14-yard pass interference call to start the Bucs' next drive. Three plays later, Brady went deep down the right sideline to Evans again and once again hit him in stride for what would be a 57-yard touchdown. The Bucs went for two but failed to leave the score at 21-16 with 14 minutes left.
After a touchback, the Panthers got one quick first down and then faced a third-and-five at their 42. It became third-and-10 after a delay-of-game call, and the Bucs' pass rush forced Darnold to scramble back and throw a hurried incompletion. Thompkins fair caught the ball at the Bucs' eight.
The Bucs got a first down on Brady's laser through traffic to Godwin for 11 and then another on an 11-yard outlet pass to Fournette. Brady then found Gage coming out of the slot for 21 yards into Carolina territory. Otton reached high to snare Brady's next pass and power his way to the 30 for another set of downs. And then, yet again, Evans got past the defense on the right sideline and Brady hit him in the back of the end zone for another score. The Bucs again went for two and this time Godwin was able to haul it in to put the Bucs up, 24-21 with seven minutes left.
Johnny Hekker's punt bounced out of bounds at the Bucs' 29 and the home team got one first down on Brady's third-and-one sneak. However, facing third-and-three at the 47 Brady took a seven-yard sack and was then flagged for delay of game when he spiked his helmet in frustration. The Bucs ended up punting from their 35 and a holding penalty on Carolina pushed them back to their own 13 with 2:32 left in regulation.
The drive was over in an instant. On first down, Nelson beat rookie T Ikem Ekwonu cleanly off the line and hit Darnold from behind, forcing a fumble. The ball bounced out to the right, and even though several Carolina linemen were close to it, it was Vea who pounced on it at the Carolina six. Fournette powered straight up the middle on the next snap for a touchdown that would have given the Bucs an 11-point lead but the play was reviewed and Fournette was deemed to be down a half-yard short. The offense came back on the field and the clock ran down to the two-minute warning. The gratification was just slightly delayed, as Brady burrowed his way over the line on a one-yard TD sneak. Succop missed the extra point, making it a 30-21 game with 1:58 left.
After a touchback, Carolina got a quick five yards on a defensive holding call. Darnold was chased all over the pocket on the next play but got off a pass to Hubbard for 19 yards. Edwards nearly intercepted Darnold's next pass but the QB was able to scramble out of bounds at the Bucs' 40 with 1:31 left. A four-yard pass to Hubbard only ate up six seconds and Darnold's next pass was tipped and incomplete. Darnold moved the sticks with a pass over the middle to Tremble, then spiked the ball with 1:04 left. Carolina brought on Eddy Pineiro to try what became a 49-yard field goal after a delay of game penalty. He made it to pull Carolina within six with 59 seconds to play.
The Panthers tried an onside kick but Otton fielded it on a bounce and held on. That made it first down at the Carolina 44, and the Panthers still had all three timeouts. White stepped out of a tackle near the line and ran for four yards, sliding to the ground at the 40 in order to stay inbounds. The Bucs' next two runs went nowhere but did force the Panthers to use their last two timeouts. The Bucs deliberately took a delay of game penalty and then a low snap forced Camarda to scramble with the ball before somehow getting off a kick that rolled down to the two. The Bucs had to re-kick due to an eligible man downfield penalty and it was fair caught at the Carolina eight with 26 seconds left.
Winfield nearly intercepted Darnold's first pass of the drive but Moore managed to break it up, drawing offensive pass interference in the process. Darnold managed to get off a 36-pass to Smith but there were only four seconds left after his spike. The ball was snapped from the Carolina 37 after a false start. Darnold scrambled to buy time and threw a short pass to Marshall that started up a wild pitch play that at one point got as far as the Buccaneers' 33 before eventually ending in a fumble recovered by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka.