In a game that would either clinch the NFC South for the home team or give the visitors control of the division's final outcome, the Carolina Panthers held a 14-0 second-quarter lead on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The situation wasn't exactly bleak for the Buccaneers, given the frequency with which Tom Brady has led startling comebacks this season, but it certainly didn't look promising.
As it turned out the Buccaneers would rally for a 30-24 victory that gave them their second straight division title. This time, the rally started, re-started and finished the same way: a long touchdown bomb from Brady to Mike Evans down the right sideline.
The plays themselves were relatively simple. Evans lined up wide to the right and ran a go route that took him to the sideline and got him separation on the trailing defender. Brady was afforded time to let the play develop and eventually threw a trio of perfect arcing passes, each one hitting Evans in stride. The first one, a 63-yarder in the second quarter, cut that 14-0 lead in half. The second one, a 57-yard strike early in the fourth quarter, made it a one-score game again after the Panthers had reestablished a 21-10 lead. And the third one, a 30-yarder that went to the back right corner of the end zone, put the Buccaneers ahead for the first time. Brady's own one-yard sneak after a Vita Vea fumble recovery at the Carolina six, would actually prove to be the winning points, but the Bucs never trailed again after Evans' final score.
While there wasn't much that was tricky or subtle about any of Evans' three touchdowns, NFL Next Gen Stats can help us take a closer look at how they unfolded. All of the following numbers were generated by NGS.
63-Yard Touchdown, Second Quarter
On his first score, Evans ran a total of 64.64 yards, an indication of how little wasted movement there was in his go route. In order to pull away from cornerback Keith Taylor, Evans accelerated to a max speed of 20.66 miles per hour, which is the highest speed he has reached on any play during the entire 2022 season.
Brady threw this pass 43.2 yards down the field, and it actually traveled 57.6 yards in the air giving the angle of the throw. It was in the air for 2.9 seconds before settling into Evans' arms just past the Carolina 20. Brady had great protection on the play and waited until 2.87 seconds after the snap to release the ball; he also "scrambled" for 4.6 yards on the play to put give himself time and position. NGS gave the throw a completion probability of just 38.1%.
When Brady let the ball go, Evans was just crossing midfield and he had just one yard of separation on Taylor. It was horizontal separation, as Evans was between the defender and the sideline but the two were running evenly. That didn't last long, however. Evans built up 2.35 yards of separation by the time he crossed the 40 and had it up to 2.80 yards when the ball arrived. He was not touched as he ran the last 19.8 yards into the end zone.
Prior to this play, the Bucs had a win probability of just 19.5%, according to NGS. That improved to 27.7% after the score.
57-Yard Touchdown, Fourth Quarter
Evans was isolated on the right side on his second score, lined up two yards wide of the numbers. Cornerback C.J. Henderson was in coverage this time, giving the receiver just 3.11 yards of cushion at the snap. Evans came off the line in a job for about six yards, but as he came even with Henderson he suddenly accelerated and as he hit the Panthers' 45 he threw up his hand to alert Brady that he had his man beat.
Brady had three players running routes on the left side on this play, and he stared in that direction for three seconds, even throwing in a pump fake. But when he turned back to his right he immediately launched another deep pass to Evans, who by this point had reached the 40 and had 2.4 yards of vertical separation from Henderson. This pass traveled 38.1 yards downfield before hitting Evans and had a total of 51.3 air yards. Brady released it 3.64 seconds after the snap – nearly an eternity compared to most of the Buccaneers' passes this year – and it was in the air for 2.4 seconds. NGS gave it a completion probability of just 26.4%.
Once again, Evans caught the ball just inside the 20, needing to run the last 18.9 yards to the end zone. Because he bent his route out several yards and then back in by the time of the catch, Evans ran a total of 65.00 yards on the play and reached a maximum speed of 19.37 miles per hour. At the time the ball arrived he had 2.0 yards of separation from Henderson and he also had safety Xavier Woods closing in, but he split them diagonally and crossed the goal line right on the right hashmarks.
Since Carolina had pushed its lead back up to 11 points with their own fourth-quarter touchdown, NGS tabbed the Buccaneers chances of winning before this play at 15.0%. It jumped to 30.8% after Evans crossed the goal line.
30-Yard Touchdown, Fourth Quarter
This was the play that finally made the Buccaneers favorites to win the game, as it made their NGS win probability jump from 45.4% to 61.4%.
Evans lined up wide of the numbers again on his final touchdown, with Henderson giving him 10.7 yards of cushion this time. Chris Godwin was in the slot, a few yards outside the hashmarks, and he would run an out underneath Evans' route at the snap. Safety Sam Franklin was lined up over Godwin, giving 9.27 yards of cushion. There wasn't a single Panthers defender deeper than Henderson, which meant Evans and Brady knew they had the setup for a two-man footrace.
That's why Brady doesn't bother looking in any other direction on this final touchdown pass. He gives a quick pump fake when Evans is at the 33 and Henderson is at the 20, but it doesn't appear to affect the defender. Brady releases the pass when Evans is at the Panthers' 22, and at this point Henderson still has a 2.76 yard cushion.
Evans draws even with Henderson, on his outside shoulder, as both players reach the 16. At this point, the football is crossing the 30-yard line and Evans has already located it. He accelerates and picks up 2.05 yards of diagonal separation from Henderson by the time he reaches the five. Henderson has closed that to 1.51 yards as they reach the goal line and 1.10 yards when the ball arrives, but that's enough for Brady's pass to drop perfectly into Evans' arms 7.1 yards from the end zone back line.
This was the most difficult of the three touchdowns to complete, with NGS giving it a completion probability of just 19.6 seconds. Brady also got it off quicker than the first two, releasing the ball just 2.34 seconds after the snap. The ball traveled 48.6 total air yards before arriving at its target and was in the air for 2.5 seconds. Evans ran a total of 36.67 yards and reached a max speed of 19.77 miles per hour. He was still running 19.41 miles per hour when the ball arrived.