Another win for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers means another Game Ball for one of its standout players. Hopefully we have three or four more of these to give out before it's all said and done.
In the meantime, we have one more regular-season Game Ball to hand out…or rather, we have our Week 17 nominations, which will allow you to determined who gets the award for the Buccaneers' 44-27 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
As has been the case throughout the Buccaneers' season-capping four-game winning streak, the viable candidates are myriad. It starts, of course, with Tom Brady, who just finished the greatest season by a quarterback in franchise history. With all that he has done this year, his 399 passing yards against Atlanta marked his highest total of the season. There's plenty more to draw from the Brady statistical well but we'll save it for below if he happens to be a nominee.
Mike Evans set an incredible NFL record before injuring his knee. After he left, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown picked up the slack in a big way, both topping 100 yards and scoring twice. Ronald Jones came back strong and the offensive line gave Brady all day to operate.
Tampa Bay's defense was operating without stars Devin White and Shaq Barrett, not to mention top corner Carlton Davis, but still got the job done and clamped down when it needed to in the fourth quarter. Kevin Minter kept the middle of the defense tight in White's absence and Ndamukong Suh picked up the pass-rush slack from the interior line. Sean Murphy-Bunting stepped up in the secondary with one of his best games of the year, including a key play to secure the win in the fourth quarter.
That's plenty of deserving players and they're not the only ones, but we have to make a choice. After every Buccaneers win this season, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are nominating one player each for a vote by the fans as to who deserves that week's Game Ball. The fans will then determine the winner in a poll at the bottom of this page, voting either for Carmen's choice or my choice…or if you aren't satisfied with the candidates we put forth, you can choose "other." Since we have decided not to duplicate picks in any given week, we're alternating the order of selection and it's Carmen's turn to go first.
Carmen Vitali: WR Chris Godwin
I wanted to put Mike Evans here, I did. Getting the NFL record for most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to start a career is absolutely reason enough for a game ball. And if we're giving out multiple, he's definitely getting one. Then taking us all on the roller coaster of emotions going down with a knee injury in the end zone – I'll never, ever forget how quiet the stadium and press box got as we all collectively held our breath to see how he'd walk off the field. Now that we know there is no structural damage, we can exhale as Evans has a pretty good chance of playing on Saturday night in the Wildcard round in Washington.
But back to who I'm actually awarding the game ball to. Because Evans went down early, it meant Godwin would have to step up and shoulder the load for both the Bucs' top receivers. And boy, did Godwin step up. He finished the day with 133 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions. That last part is key as to why I picked Godwin over Antonio Brown, who actually had five more yards than Godwin but did it on 11 catches. Godwin was just an explosive play factory with a mind-boggling 26.6 yards per reception average. It was also Godwin's fifth game with multiple touchdowns, tying him for second-most ever by a Bucs receiver in his career. Oh and it was his 11th game with over 100 receiving yards, tying for fifth-most in franchise history, and his now-six touchdowns on the year bring his career total with the Bucs to 23, which already ties him for eighth-most in Bucs' history after just four seasons with the team. His 3,540 career receiving yards tie him for ninth-most in team history.
Scott Smith: Kevin Minter
I strongly considered four options here: Minter, Antonio Brown, Tom Brady and the Offensive Line. Brown had the yards and touchdowns to match Godwin and, most importantly, he stepped into Evans' X position after the latter went down and helped keep the offense humming. At this point, Brady merits a nomination pretty much every week, and in fact he had a season-high 399 passing yards to go with four more touchdown passes. And none of that happens without an offensive line that consistently gave Brady tons of time to find open receivers for big plays. Brady was only sacked once and hit twice and was not often pressured.
Brady was probably the best player on the field on Sunday, but here's the thing: the Game Ball doesn't always have to go to the absolute best performance. Sometimes it's about a player stepping up to help his team in a difficult situation, and that's exactly what Minter did in this game. The Bucs lost perhaps their top all-around playmaker and the heart of the their defense when Devin White was placed on the COVID list just two days before the game. It's pretty hard to replace a player with 140 tackles and nine sacks. In fact, there was no other player in the NFL with that combination of stats this year.
Minter did an excellent job in that tough situation. The stats won't blow you away, but he did lead the team with nine tackles and also added a pass defensed on the Falcons' last play. Minter showed he could get downfield in coverage, could roam the middle of the field with good range and could even get after the quarterback. The Bucs were also playing without outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, defensive lineman Steve McLendon and cornerback Carlton Davis. After the game, Head Coach Bruce Arians noted how seamlessly the transition was in the middle of the defense.
"Kevin Minter, I thought, was outstanding," said Arians. "We know Kevin's a solid player and he's been one for a long time, so that drop off wasn't as big as the other ones."
It looks likely that the Buccaneers will need Minter again to open the playoffs. It's comforting to know that, as much as they would love to have White on the field, the Bucs have a player they can trust to step into that key role in a crucial moment.