The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took on the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and at halftime you would have been hard-pressed to find a Buccaneer player worthy of an individual accolade. The second half was a completely different story.
Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I have been nominating players for Game Balls after each Buccaneer victory this season, and it's a testament to how many Bucs stepped up in the second half on Sunday that we are even engaged in this exercise this week. Tampa Bay stormed back from a 17-0 halftime deficit, and a 24-7 disadvantage late in the third quarter, to win 31-27 and move to within a hair's breadth of a postseason berth.
Just when things looked bleak, Tom Brady locked in, Mike Evans caught fire, Devin White started attacking the backfield and the Bucs' defense got a series of crucial stops. Leonard Fournette scored twice and salted the game away at the end and Antonio Brown's first touchdown as a Buccaneer proved to be extremely meaningful. There were game-changing plays provided by Carlton Davis III, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Cameron Brate. It was, as Brady said after the game, a team win.
But we're looking for just one player upon whom to bestow this week's game ball. Below, Carmen and I will make our nominations and at the bottom you can vote, either for one of our choices or for "other" if you think neither of us picked the right person. Since we aren't duplicating picks the order matters and this week Carmen gets to go first.
Carmen Vitali: ILB Devin White
White told us in his postgame press conference that before the start of the second half, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles looked at him and said: "You're about to take over this game."
Yeah, well. That's exactly what White did.
The defensive captain accumulated three sacks as part of a 12-tackle performance – his SEVENTH game this season with double-digit tackles. He now ranks third in the league this season in total tackles with 130 and those three sacks also match a career-high, giving him the third multi-sack game of his career. Keep in mind, White is an inside linebacker. An off-ball linebacker, if you will. In other words, these guys aren't considered consistent pass rushers but that hasn't stopped White. He has the most sacks of any inside linebacker this year, according to Stathead, with 8.0 so far. That actually ties him with teammate Shaq Barrett in the category, tying for 11th most in the league, period. Oh, and White also added two passes defensed against the Falcons, for good measure.
Simply put, White was everywhere on Sunday.
The thing is, it wasn't smooth sailing the whole time. In fact, the story of White's first half wasn't the tackles he made, but rather one crucial one he missed that ended up extending an Atlanta drive, which resulted in their first touchdown early. I bring this up not to condemn White, but rather commend him. The mental toughness it takes to overcome that play (and the rest of the first half, for that matter) to then end up putting the team on your back like the work horse he is… well, that's pretty special. He came through when his team needed him most. But as Scott is about to tell you, he wasn't the only one.
Scott Smith: QB Tom Brady
If I told you Tom Brady completed 21 of 29 passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 131.4 passer rating while leading five straight scoring drives for a total of 31 points in a Buccaneer victory, you would say that was a pretty good game, right?
Brady did that in one half.
As Carmen reminded you above, things didn't go well for the Buccaneers in the first half in Atlanta on Sunday, and that was true on both sides of the ball. Tampa Bay only had 60 net yards of offense and five first downs by the intermission, at which point it was trailing 17-0. The Bucs' much-needed ninth win looked unlikely at that point. But Tom Brady knows a little bit about unlikely wins and second half comebacks against the Atlanta Falcons. *Cough* 28-3 *cough*.
Brady finished the game with 390 passing yards, and there's little doubt that his poise in the face of adversity helped the rest of the team believe that a comeback was possible. That Tasmanian devil on defense that Carmen nominated, Devin White, had this to say after the game:
"I just know any time you've got TB on your side, he's going to make the play when it's time to make the play. It might start a little slow but I know when it's time to come through for us he's going to come through. Every time we needed him to come through, he done come through."
At halftime, Brady's longest completion was for 14 yards. In the second half he hit five plays of 20 or more yards, the prettiest of which was the game-winner, a low-arcing 46-yard strike that hit wide receiver Antonio Brown in stride as he was reaching the end zone. Earlier in the half, he found wide receiver Mike Evans for 24 yards down to the Atlanta four. That pass wasn't nearly as pretty; in fact, it was a bit wobbly, but we'll forgive the G.O.A.T. for his form because he made that throw on the run after escaping a near sack and scrambling from his left far to his right. As White said, when Brady needed to make a play, he made it.