The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trailing 14-0 with just over two minutes left in the first half on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, and it looked like their grip on the NFC South could be slipping away. That's when the Buccaneers' most explosive offensive connection, which had been on the fritz in recent weeks, reintroduced itself and breathed new life into the team's division title hopes.
Tom Brady and Mike Evans, who had combined for 26 touchdown passes over the previous two seasons but only three through the first 16 weeks of 2022 – including none since Week Three – hooked up on a 63-yard touchdown shortly before halftime to kick start what would be an incredible afternoon for both players. Evans got past cornerback C.J. Henderson on a go down the right sideline and Brady hit him with a perfect arcing pass. Evans caught it in stride and wasn't touched as he glided into the end zone.
"I just think guys like Tom and myself and Chris Godwin and all the guys that have been in the league for a while, we like moments like this when our backs are against the wall," said Evans. "It forces us to play our best, and we played pretty good today."
The Buccaneers did indeed have their best offensive outing of the season, with 478 yards in what would eventually be a rousing 30-24 victory, and it came just in the nick of time. Tampa Bay clinched its second straight NFC South title with the win, but their playoff aspirations would have been in dire straits had they lost. Brady and Evans didn't stop with that one momentum-shifting bomb; instead, they connected on 10 passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns. Evans' next two scores looked like carbon copies – flies down the right sideline and absolutely perfect passes from Brady.
"It feels great," said Evans. "It's been an up-and-down year. We just kept fighting and we played our best ball today and it was much needed."
There have been some frustrations along the way, but the Buccaneers can now head into the postseason with the belief that their offense can produce the type of 30-point nights they have been accustomed to since Brady's arrival. Chris Godwin also caught nine passes for 120 yards on Sunday and Brady threw for 432 yards without an interception.
"He's the G.O.A.T. for a reason," said Evans of Brady. "We're blessed to have him on our side, and [I] look forward to the rest of the season.
"We have some really, really talented receivers, not just our three deep but even fourth receiver, fifth receiver, sixth receiver. We have one of the most talented receiver rooms in the world. When we're all making plays it's hard to beat us. And they played a lot of Cover One tonight and we made them pay."
The Buccaneers were in what was essentially a must-win situation on Sunday because they lost to the Panthers on the road in Week Seven, 21-3. There was a particularly frustrating moment for Evans, as he dropped what looked like a sure 64-yard touchdown with no defenders around him on the third play of the game. He still finished with nine catches for 96 yards on the day but that was a missed chance to gain some early momentum. Still, knowing how the Panthers defended him, he felt like he would have an opportunity for a big game in the rematch.
"The Panthers, the last time we played them, we knew we left way too many plays on the field," said Evans. "Obviously, I did. I was excited to get another opportunity because they play a lot of quarters, man and Cover Three. I knew we were going to have opportunities in the pass game and the O-Line did a great job protecting. Everybody had their hand in the pile on offense and it was our best game offensively, and we needed it."
Evans had a 123-yard outing four days later against Baltimore but that was his last 100-yard outing until Sunday against the Panthers. Brady often took responsibility for Evans' low-wattage games and said again on Sunday that he had missed his top receiver too many times during the season. Evans, of course, knew that it was only a matter of time until he and Brady got on the same page again.
"I just always stay ready, and that's why," he said. "It doesn't do you any good to dwell on the past and things that could have gone good or not. I just keep playing. I'm a professional – I keep playing, I work hard every week and the ball found me today."
Evans' first touchdown was also a milestone for a different reason. That was the catch that put him over 1,000 yards for the season, extending his NFL record for most such seasons to open a player's career. It also tied Hall of Famer Tim Brown for the longest such streak at any point in a player's career, trailing only the record of 12 by Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Evans joked during his postgame press conference that he had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons at Texas A&M, too, implying they should count in his streak. Either way, he's eager to keep it going next year and beyond.
"Every year is different," he said. "I just thank God that he's blessed me to be healthy and I have great people around me to help me accomplish this feat. Hopefully I can keep extending it every year I play."