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Mike Evans or Anthony Nelson? | Week 17 Game Ball

The Bucs stormed back to beat Carolina and clinch the NFC South title on Sunday, and now Brianna Dix and Scott Smith are debating who you should vote for as the Game Ball recipient

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored 20 fourth-quarter points on Sunday in their Week 17 come-from-behind victory over the Carolina Panthers, and it was a game full of eye-popping, momentum-changing plays. The Buccaneers charged into the playoffs with their win, and they did it on the backs of heroes both expected and unexpected.

Tom Brady threw for over 400 yards and a player you're going to hear about in a momentum was on the receiving end of all three of his touchdown passes. That player was not Chris Godwin, who somehow played second fiddle on offense with nine catches and 120 yards. The offensive line made all of it possible for, as Head Coach Todd Bowles put it, keeping Carolina defenders away from Tom Brady's feet and allowing him to loft so many perfect deep balls.

Anthony Nelson, Vita Vea and Sean Murphy-Bunting were all responsible for critical takeaways as the Buccaneers' defense continued to rediscover its turnover magic. Punter Jake Camarda made a play that had to be seen to be believed, and might have averted disaster. There were stars aplenty, but only one can win the fan vote for Game Ball for Week 17.

Each time the Buccaneers win, Brianna Dix and I are tasked with nominating two players for the singular honor of our Game Ball. Those two are then included in a list of four candidates…and then the final decision is up to you. After you review the cases we make for two of those players, you will find a link at the bottom of the page to place your vote.

Since we can't duplicate votes and getting the first pick could be important (spoiler alert: This week it is), we have been alternating the order of our choices from week to week. It's Brianna's turn to go first.

So, who should get this week's Game Ball? Here are our suggestions.

Brianna Dix: WR Mike Evans

Well, Mike Evans finished the game with season highs in receptions (10) receiving yards (207) and touchdowns (3). His 207 receiving yards were the second-most in a game during his tenure and he now has 1,124 yards on the 2022-23 season – marking his ninth consecutive season with 1,000-plus receiving yards. I think we can all agree that those accolades should be regarded with high esteem. However, I applaud you for trying to play devil's advocate below, Scott. In a must-win division battle for the title, Evans became the catalyst, exploiting the Panthers' use of Cover 1 with no safety help downfield. In the Week 17 clash, vintage Evans made an impact between the hash marks.

Evans is the prime example of longevity and consistency in the league, with Sunday's matchup as a prime example. With three minutes left in the first half, Brady lobbed a deep pass down the right sideline and Evans caught it in stride for a 63-yard touchdown. The next two included a 57-yard touchdown and a 30-yarder which swung the momentum in favor of the Bucs. All three of Evans' highlight-worthy grabs were on go routes down the right sideline, as Brady released pinpoint arching throws that Evans caught while blazing north-south parallel to the boundary.

"Those were some really, really good balls, some of the best games I've seen Tom play since he's been here," Evans remarked. "They fell right into my breadbasket every time. He had an unbelievable day."

In additional to Evans' vertical prowess, he also made several timely catches on intermediate routes to keep drives alive for Tampa Bay throughout the ballgame. In one of the best games by a receiver in Buccaneer history and arguably NFL history, Evans certainly deserves a Game Ball – plus, a bust in Canton. Sunday's Week 17 performance certainly made a strong case for the latter category.

Scott Smith: OLB Anthony Nelson

Okay, I'm going to reveal my strategy here. I don't know how I can build a statistical argument to make you cast your vote for anyone but Evans. I mean, just go back up there and read that again. It literally might be the best game ever played by a Buccaneers receiver. And it was engineered by the man who is definitely the best wide receiver in franchise history. So how do I beat that? I don't think I can go with Brady, because he'd be the 1B to Evans' 1A.

I appeal to your sense of drama, and argue that, without one or two other plays, all of Evans' heroics would have been for naught.

Specifically, I will point to two plays: Outside linebacker Anthony Nelson's strip sack of Sam Darnold inside Carolina's 10-yard line with less than three minutes to play and punter Jake Camarda's disaster-averting wizardry with 42 seconds on the clock.

I'll start with the latter, which I ultimately eliminated because asking you to vote for a punter when Mike Evans goes for 200 seems like a futile endeavor. Still, when Camarda found the punt snap bouncing at his feet with 42 seconds left and the Bucs up by six, there was little hope that anything but Carolina getting the ball back in excellent field position would be the end result. But somehow he scooped the ball up, dashed around left end and, ridiculously got off a kick on the run that rolled down to the two. The play was brought back due to an inevitable ineligible-man-downfield penalty, but that only gave him a chance to kick again and he forced a fair catch at the eight. Ninety two yards with 32 seconds to play was too much to ask for the Panthers.

Now on to my actual nominee: Nelson. Nelson and fellow OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka have been playing virtually every snap for the past three weeks due to injuries and all Nelson has done is produced. He has 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in that span, and that includes the defensive play of the day in Week 17. After Evans' third touchdown gave the Bucs their first lead of the night, Nelson ghosted left tackle Ikem Ekwonu two plays later and buried Sam Darnold from behind, forcing a fumble that Vita Vea recovered at the Carolina six. Brady burrowed through the line two plays later for what would prove to be the game-winning points.

Do the Buccaneers win if Nelson doesn't force that turnover to give the home team a two-score lead? I don't think I want to know the answer. Give this hard-working man a well-deserved Game Ball. (And give Mike Evans a spot in the Hall of Fame.)

Who deserves the Game Ball for the Bucs' playoff-clinching win over their division rival? Click here to cast your vote.

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