Pictures from the Buccaneers' Week 17 match-up with the Panthers.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last win of the 2016 regular season didn't clinch a playoff berth, but it did produce a winning record, and it was decided in the most appropriate manner.
Jameis Winston's 10-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans with three minutes left in regulation led to a 17-16 win at Raymond James Stadium on New Year's Day for the Buccaneers, completing their 2016 regular-season record at 9-7. In Dirk Koetter's first season as head coach, the Bucs finished above .500 for the first time since 2010, improved three games on their 2015, compiled a 4-2 record in division play and finished the campaign on an encouraging note.
"It's a big win, as big as it can be," said cornerback Brent Grimes, who scored the Buccaneers' first touchdown on an interception return in the third quarter. "We obviously couldn't control anything else. We wanted to come in and get a win and end the season with a winning season. That's a big deal for the organization and the fans, and us in this locker room. We strived all week to talk about finishing the season on a good note and starting 2017 with a win, and we accomplished that today."
Tampa Bay's slim playoff hopes ended when Philadelphia beat Dallas, 27-13, on Sunday afternoon. Truthfully, that remaining postseason glimmer wasn't much motivation for the Buccaneers, as their winning scenario necessitated a very unlikely tie between Washington and the New York Giants. Rather, the Bucs showed impressive fight in their 2016 capper as proof to themselves that they are a team on the rise.
"It means that we've got to keep getting better so that we can add to the future, so that we can continue to make the Tampa Bay Bucs not just a one-year wonder but a true franchise, a true family that's continuing for the Super Bowl every year," said Winston.
Carolina drove 74 yards in the closing minutes after Evans' touchdown to post what could have been the game-tying score. However, Ron Rivera and the Panthers eschewed an extra point kick to go for two and safety Bradley McDougald broke up a pass intended for tight end Greg Olsen over the middle. The ensuing onside kick by the Panthers bounced around dangerously for several seconds but was eventually corralled by rookie DE Noah Spence.
Winston kneeled once to end a game that included two lead changes and a myriad of missed opportunities on both sides, including two missed field goals by each team. Evans's last catch was Tampa Bay's first offensive touchdown of the day, while Carolina only found the end zone on its first and last drives of the contest.
"Carolina is a winning team and we can't forget that they are the defending NFC champions," said Winston. "But our defense played an amazing game. Their game cannot be defined on that last drive because they actively helped us win this game."
That Winston found Evans in the end zone on the Bucs' last true offensive play of the season was, as noted above, extremely appropriate. That score was the 28th touchdown pass of the season for Winston, which broke Josh Freeman's single-season record of 27 in 2012. Evans scored for the 12th time in 2016, tying his own team record from his 2014 rookie season. Those two appear to share a very bright shared future in Tampa.
"Like I've said, any time Mike Evans is one-on-one, you've got to go his way, and Mike Evans did it again," said Winston, who scrambled out of pressure and threw on the run for the winning score, finishing a season in which he frequently made outstanding plays outside the pocket..
Overall, Winston completed 20 of 35 passes for 202 yards on the day, in the process also setting a new Buccaneer single-season record for passing yards (4,090). Freeman previously set the record at 4,065 in 2012. Winston is also the first quarterback in NFL history to start his career with consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons.
On this day, his favorite target was slot receiver Adam Humphries, who caught a career-high 10 and got much of his 94 yards after the catch on a series of screens and short outlet passes. His 17-yard catch-and-run down the left sideline in the fourth quarter set up first-and-goal at the 10 two plays before Evans scored.
"It was a play that I honestly didn't think was coming my way, but with a quarterback like Jameis any ball can come to you," said Humphries. "I was fortunate to get that ball thrown to me, get some positive yards and set up good field position for a touchdown."
Jacquizz Rodgers ran 17 times for 75 yards, including a 26-yard breakaway in the second quarter, as the Bucs averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Rodgers and Humphries were the Bucs' leading gainers in the ground and air games, respectively, coming up big after the recent losses of tight end Cam Brate and running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims.
"I go into every week with the same mindset, just trying to play my best," said Humphries. "Going into this week, we had some different personal groups with a big passing target like Cam out of the game. You knew there were a few more opportunities in the game, scheme-wise, but to be able to go out there and perform and have 10 catches is great."
It was also rather appropriate that the game ended on a contested pass in the end zone. Tampa Bay's secondary was extremely active in holding Cam Newton to 18-of-32 passing for 237 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Ten of Newton's 14 incompletions were the results of Buccaneer defenders getting their hands on the football, and Grimes had perhaps the best game of his first season in Tampa. Grimes's interception was the fourth pick-six of the year for Tampa Bay's defense, tying a franchise record. Grimes broke up four passes on the day, including two in the end zone on Carolina's last drive.
"Just see ball, make a play on it," said Grimes of the defense's aggressive mentality on Sunday. "That's football in a nutshell. When the ball's in the air, you just make a play on the ball. I pride myself on doing that and that's what I did. Everybody stepped up today, the whole defense. Tandy had two picks, we had other opportunities to get picks, so we were just playing good ball today and it worked out for us."
Meanwhile, safety Keith Tandy continued to justify his late-season elevation to the starting lineup, leading the team with 12 tackles, including one for a loss, and intercepting two passes. Linebacker Lavonte David also finished his 2016 season on a strong note, notching two of the Bucs' three sacks among six stops and three tackles for loss. DE Robert Ayers, another valuable addition to the defense in 2016, had the third sack and finished the season with 6.5 QB takedowns.
The Buccaneers scored on the game's opening drive, although a good drive stalled in the red zone and they had to settle for three on Roberto Aguayo's 33-yard field goal. Rodgers got the drive started off on a good note by breaking a tackle and running for 16 yards on the game's first play. Winston did most of the rest on a scrambling 28-yard strike to Humphries, on which he escaped serious pressure, and a 10-yard run on a rollout that was well-covered.
The Panthers countered with an even better opening possession, driving 75 yards on six plays to take the lead on Stewart's two-yard plunge. That final play was the only one on the drive that didn't gain at least eight yards. Ginn picked up 17 yards on an end-around and another 22 on a rollout pass from Newton on the right sideline.
A 26-yard breakaway run by Rodgers quickly got the ball across midfield but a third-down Winston pass was deflected at the line by LB Shaq Thompson and nearly intercepted. Bryan Anger's punt was fair-caught at the Panthers' eight and the defense got the ball back after giving up one first down. CB Vernon Hargreaves broke up a third-down pass to Brenton Bersin to force a punt, but a penalty on the Bucs' return team flipped field position all the way back to the Tampa Bay 23.
That poor field position quickly turned into a problem when Carolina's defense snared the game's first turnover. A pass to Humphries deflected off the receiver's hand and was tipped into the air by CB James Bradberry, who was then able to track down his own deflection before stepping out of bounds at the 16. Fortunately, Tampa Bay's defense handled the sudden change perfectly, beginning with a 12-yard sack by blitzing LB Lavonte David. Great coverage on the next play eventually resulted in a pass-interference call against Olsen, and the best Carolina could do was get in position for a 45-yard field goal try. Graham Gano's kick drifted wide of the right upright and the Bucs took over at their own 36.
The first two plays of the second quarter were precision strikes of 12 and 22 yards to Evans, but two plays later Winston was tracked down from behind as he scrambled to his left. DE Wes Horton hit an unaware Winston, causing a fumble that the Panthers recovered at their own 28. Once again, the Buccaneers' defense came up big after the giveaway, with Robert Ayers' third-down sack of Newton finishing a quick three-and-out.
Tampa Bay's first takeaway of the game came with seven minutes left in the first half, one play after Kwon Alexander had nearly picked off a deflected pass. On third-and-16, Cam scrambled up the middle and unleashed a deep rainbow to WR Corey Brown down the middle. Brown and Tandy went up for the ball together and Tandy came down with it for an interception at the Bucs' 22. Both players had their hands on the ball but Tandy had it pinned to his chest and a replay review allowed the call to stand.
The Bucs took the resulting drive into Carolina territory but came up empty when Aguayo missed a 46-yard field goal. Rookie CB Javien Elliott nearly intercepted a pass in acrobatic fashion as Carolina tried to get into position for a field goal but couldn't hold on as he hit the ground. The Panthers managed to get off a 58-yard try, but it was well short and wide, and Humphries added some excitement with a long return of the missed kick as time expired.
The second half started extremely well for the home team. On Carolina's second play from scrimmage, Newton tried to hit Ginn on a quick out but Grimes jumped the route, caught it on the run, tiptoed for several steps on the sideline and then stayed inbounds for a 31-yard touchdown.
Carolina got across midfield quickly thanks to a long kickoff return but Grimes ended it again with a diving PBU on third down, again on an out to Ginn. Carolina's punt was downed at the Bucs' 12.
The Panthers took their next drive into Tampa Bay territory, too, thanks to a perfect call against an all-out Buccaneer blitz. Newton threw a quick out to Ginn, who ran away from CB Vernon Hargreaves and gained 39 yards, with only Tandy preventing the touchdown with a leg tackle. The Bucs defense held there but Carolina still tied the game on Gano's 54-yard field goal.
S Chris Conte nearly made a diving interception with five minutes left in the third quarter but it was ruled an incompletion and a Buccaneer challenge failed to overturn the call. A tackle-for-loss by Tandy and another sack by David still forced the Panthers to punt from their own eight and the Bucs took over on the midfield stripe. Unfortunately, that possession went nowhere and ended on a sack by Mario Addison.
The Panthers took the ensuing possession close to midfield but it ended on another takeaway by the Bucs' defense. Newton tried to go deep to Olsen but it was intercepted by Tandy, who fought off a tackle and returned the ball 28 yards to the Bucs' 44. A horse-collar flag on the end of the run tacked on 15 yards to the Carolina 41.
Rodgers gained 17 yards on the very next play, bursting through the into open field on the first snap of the fourth quarter. The Bucs couldn't move it any closer, and came up empty when Aguayo's 48-yard field goal attempt was blocked and returned to the Panthers' 49. A 13-yard catch over the middle by Benjamin converted a third-and-six and two Mike Tolbert runs led to a first down at the 14. The drive stalled there and Gano missed a 36-yard field goal to keep the game tied with six minutes left in regulation.
The Bucs took over at their own 26 and immediately picked up 20 yards on a catch by Shepard. Evans got the ball into Carolina territory with a leaping catch for 16 yards and another strike over the middle to Shepard made it first down at the 27. Humphries took a short pass and shot up the left sideline all the way to the 10-yard line, and two plays later Winston escaped a collapsing pocket and threw on the run to Evans for a touchdown.
Tampa Bay's defense needed to hold for three minutes but the Panthers quickly manufactured a scoring threat when Benjamin leaped for a throw down the middle between defenders and broke free for a 47-yard gain. After a tackle-breaking Tolbert run for eight, the Panthers stalled for two more plays and found themselves in a fourth-and-two at the Bucs' 19 as the two-minute warning arrived.
A three-yard pass over the middle to Olsen kept the drive alive but Grimes broke up another pass in the end zone two snaps later. Newton tried a designed run out of the shotgun on third down but David tripped him up in the backfield for a loss of two. After using their final timeout, the Panthers converted the fourth down with a 13-yard strike over the middle to Benjamin. Newton simply lobbed a pass to Benjamin at the front of the end zone for a touchdown on the next play, and the Panthers elected to go for two with 17 seconds left. McDougald broke up the pass over the middle to end it, and Carolina's resulting onside kick attempt was unsuccessful.