It looked like a 60-minute grind on a rainy evening at Raymond James Stadium, until one explosive play by a future Hall of Famer changed everything.
Energized by a 75-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by Mike Evans, the Buccaneers surged to a 21-18 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Week 13. It was the longest reception of Evans' illustrious career and it came just one play after the Panthers had taken their first lead of the game on a one-yard Chuba Hubbard run in the third quarter. It also kick-started an offense that had ended its previous six drives on five punts and an interception.
"We weathered the storm, both literally and [figuratively]," said QB Baker Mayfield, who threw for 202 yards on 14 of 29 passing. "We had our ups and downs in the first half because of the weather, but we found a way. It was a little bit sloppy with the first half for the offense, couldn't get anything going, but we made the plays when we needed to. Obviously, Mike made a big one there on that one-play drive, then the front took over. That was the deal. We ran the ball when we needed to at the end."
It was a momentous night for Evans in multiple ways. He finished the game with 162 yards on seven catches, accounting for more than half of the team's 322 net yards of offense, and in the process surpassed 1,000 yards for the 10th time in his 10 NFL seasons. That extended his existing record for most 1,000-yard seasons and tied Randy Moss for the second-most in league history, behind only Jerry Rice's 14. In addition, Evans' streak of 10 such years in a row is the second-longest at any point in a player's career and just one behind Rice's streak of 11. The touchdown catch was the 91st of his career, moving him into a tie with Davante Adams and Isaac Bruce for the third most in league annals.
"I don't know what more you can say," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "He's been like this for 10 years now. You know he's getting the ball and everybody's trying to stop him and he makes plays over and over. It's a credit to him, his work ethic, the way he approaches the game. Unbelievable."
Evans was most concerned with the Bucs' win but is aware of the historic resume he is putting together.
"I'm happy we got the win, most importantly," he said. "I'm happy with the record, obviously. I've had a lot of great quarterbacks and offensive coordinators who believed in me, so I really appreciate them. Hopefully I can keep that streak going for however long my career goes."
The Buccaneers improved to 5-7 with the win and stayed one game behind the 6-6 Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, with five weeks to go. The Falcons beat the New York Jets, 13-8, on Sunday but the New Orleans Saints dropped a 33-28 decision to the Detroit Lions to join the Buccaneers in second at 5-7. The Buccaneers head to Atlanta in Week 14 seeking a share of first place as they try to capture their third straight division title. The Falcons beat the Buccaneers, 16-13, in Tampa in Week Seven.
"It's huge," said Bowles of next Sunday's game in Atlanta. "We know it's a round-robin tournament. We all play each other. It's going to come down to the end. It's very important to win division games. It's another division game coming up. We had a tough one in our place and we've got to go down there and try to return to favor."
The scoring picked up in the game's last 20 minutes. Following the back-to-back touchdowns by Hubbard and Evans, the Bucs tacked on a 67-yard scoring drive that gave them a 21-10 lead on Chris Godwin's 19-yard touchdown run with less than 12 minutes left in regulation. The Panthers responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive of their own that included a 30-yard catch on fourth down by WR D.J. Chark and ended in another Hubbard one-yard run, plus a successful two-point conversion.
Carolina had one more shot at tying the game or taking the lead when they got the ball back at the 3:31 mark, but S Antoine Winfield Jr. ended that drive with a toe-tapping sideline interception on fourth-and-one. The Bucs needed one more first down to kill the clock and were in a third-and-one at the two-minute warning. White got the ball and not only got the yard but broke free down to the 18, purposely sliding to a stop so the Bucs could finish with a series of kneel-downs.
White finished the game with 84 yards and a score on 20 carries and 22 more on three receptions, marking the seventh time in 12 games he's reached 98 or more yards from scrimmage. As a team, the Buccaneers rushed for 128 yards, their highest total on the ground this season but just three more than they had last week in Indianapolis, and averaged 4.6 yards per tote.
Tampa Bay's defense held the Panthers to 282 total yards of offense, including 149 net passing yards. Rookie quarterback Bryce Young completed 15 of 31 passes for 178 yards, no touchdowns and one interception and was sacked four times. Winfield, rookie OLB Yaya Diaby and LB J.J. Russell each had one sack and another one was credited to the team on a backward pass that was ruled a fumble. Winfield filled up his stat line with a team-high eight tackles plus a sack, two tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, one interception and three passes defensed.
"He's been great," said Bowles of Winfield. "He got a sack earlier. He can see the ball very well. I think leaving him back there this year instead of putting him at nickel has been great. We're putting him down there some where he can make plays, but he's starting to catch them. If he catches all the ones thrown to him he'll be great, and he caught one today. He makes play after play, week after week."
The Buccaneers started the game with only two off-ball linebackers, as starters Lavonte David (groin) and Devin White (foot) were both sidelined by injury while rookie SirVocea Dennis was out with an injury. That pressed Russell and K.J. Britt into starting spots, but Britt was injured 10 minutes into the game, forcing the Bucs to play safety Ryan Neal up in the box as a linebacker the rest of the way. Russell finished with seven tackles to go with his sack and Neal had four tackles, one for a loss. Bowles awarded Russell a game ball in the locker room.
"J.J. did a heck of a job," said Bowles. "He even got a sack just coming up. He gets very little reps and to come in and play like he played today, and Ryan came in early for K.J. Ryan played linebacker off of one day of practice, so that was huge for him. He had a walk-through and he had a couple reps and he went in there and played a hell of a game. He got a game ball as well as Mike."
Neither offense could get into gear in the first half, thanks in part to a constant rain shower that steadily increased in intensity. The Buccaneers had the only touchdown drive of the half, with a 40-yard Evans catch setting up White's one-yard touchdown run on the team's second possession. The Panthers had just one drive that gained more than 23 yards, as they moved 70 yards for a field goal in the second quarter. Tampa Bay's defense held near the goal line, turning a second-and-one at the two into a fourth-and-four and Eddy Pinero's 23-yard kick. The Bucs had a 142-130 edge in total yardage at the intermission but the Panthers' defense had the only takeaway to that point on Xavier Woods interception in the second quarter. Tampa Bay's defense held Carolina to just one conversion in seven third-down attempts and gave up only 55 net passing yards. Bowles said the rain affected both offenses significantly.
"It did – we hadn't played in the rain probably this year, not like that anyway, and it just came up," he said. "It wasn't supposed to do that. It was tough sledding the first half but it kind of eased up in the second half and allowed us to make some plays."
The Bucs got the ball first after a touchback and White started things off with a hard-charging run up the middle, pushing the pile for an eight-yard gain. Godwin couldn't haul in a short pass on the sideline on second down but a swing pass left to WR Deven Thompkins worked to the tune of the two needed yards. Two plays later, a reverse pitch from RB Chase Edmonds to WR Trey Palmer hit as well, with Palmer find a seam around left end for 13 yards. White drew a pass-interference penalty two plays later that erased a catch for a first down by TE Cade Otton and made it second-and-19 back at the Bucs' 43. After a draw play to White got six, a pass over the middle to Palmer was incomplete and the Bucs punted it away. Jake Camarda's punt was fair caught at the Atlanta 15.
Diaby got around the left end and was able to wrap up Hubbard for no gain on the Panthers' first play from scrimmage. Good coverage on what was meant to be a receiver screen forced Young to throw the ball into the ground on second down and WR Jonathan Mingo landed out of bounds while trying to make a diving catch on third down. That was the original ruling, and it stood after the Panthers threw the challenge flag and had it reviewed. Thompkins tacked a 15-yard return onto Johnny Hekker's 57-yard punt, making it first down for the home team at their own 43.
A six-yard catch by Palmer in traffic on third-and-four gave the Bucs an initial first down and got the ball across midfield. The Bucs faced a third-and-10 from the Carolina 45 moments later and Mayfield had plenty of time in the pocket to let a long pass to Evans develop, hitting him near the right sideline for a gain of 40 yards. White's first-down run got two and Evans drew a pass interference call in the back of the end zone on the next snap. That made it first-and-goal at the one and White plunged it in on the next play for the game's first points.
After a touchback, a holding call erased most of a good run by Hubbard on first down and made it first-and-13 at the 22. The Panthers moved the chains, however, with two more runs and then a six-yard out pass to WR Adam Thielen got a first down at the 39. K.J. Britt was shaken up on the play and came out, with S Ryan Neal stepping in to play linebacker. Hubbard got a first down just before midfield and Young then rolled out left and fired across the middle to Thielen for 12 more. Hubbard broke out again to the left and slipped down at the Bucs' 22 after a gain of 17, but he was stopped for a loss of two by CB Zyon McCollum. CB Carlton Davis got to Mingo as soon as he caught a short pass on second down but was flagged for unnecessary roughness after throwing the receiver to the ground. That penalty made it first-and-goal at the 11 as the first quarter came to a close. After the two teams switched sides, Hubbard ran around left end for nine yards to the two. Davis defended an attempt to get it to Mingo in the end zone, and a run blitz by Neal worked perfectly as he dived to drop Hubbard for a loss of three on the next play. Carolina sent K Eddy Pineiro out to hit a 23-yard field goal.
With the rain picking up significantly, the Bucs got a new possession at their own 25 with 13:30 left in the half. Edmonds picked his way between the tackles for a gain of four, but an attempt by Mayfield to get Evans to turn upfield on a pump-and-go didn't get the message across and the pass was incomplete. The Bucs tried a tunnel screen out to Edmonds on third-and-six but he was just tripped up by CB C.J. Henderson before he could shoot through a gap. After Camarda's punt, the Panthers had the ball back at their own 27.
The Panthers faced a third-and-one moments later and with Antoine Winfield Jr. and Yaya Diaby leading the way the Bucs' defense was able to stop RB Miles Sanders two yards back in the backfield, leading to another punt. Thompkins fair caught it at the Bucs' 22. One incompletion in White's direction and his carry up the gut for two put the Bucs in third-and-eight and the drive ended when the officials picked up a pass-interference flag drawn by Evans well downfield. Camarda hit a 55-yard punt but return man Ihmir Smith-Marsette got 22 of it back on his way to the Panthers' 43-yard line. After one first down, the Panthers fell into a third-and-19 when Diaby stopped Sanders for a gain of two and Young officially fumbled when his toss out to left was deemed to be backwards and a fumble that went out of bounds. A short pass to Mingo didn't come close to moving the chains and Hekker punted again, with the Panthers downing it at the seven.
A pair of runs up the middle by White only netted two yards but Evans ran a sharp slant on the right side and Mayfield fit his pass in between two defenders for a gain of 13. Two plays later, White spun away from a defender in the backfield and was able to dart around right end for a gain of six. On third-and-three, Mayfield threw downfield to Evans but S Xavier Woods won a jump ball for an interception at the Carolina 40 with 2:22 left in the half.
DL Calijah Kancey nearly sacked Young on first down but did force a 15-yard intentional grounding penalty. It was third-and-22 when the two-minute warning arrived. The Panthers played it safe with a handoff to RB Raheem Blackshear, which was good for six yards. The Bucs called a timeout at the 1:50 mark before Hekker's punt, which got the ball down to the Tampa Bay 20.
Mayfield got the drive started with an 11-yard out to Evans on the left side. Palmer ran out to the other side on the next play for six more, and another attempted out to him was incomplete to stop the clock. On third-and-four, Mayfield scrambled long enough to find time to hit Palmer past the sticks but the play came back on a pass interference penalty on Otton. After a false start, it was third-and-19 and a dumpoff pass to White wasn't enough for a new set of downs.
The Panthers called timeout with 59 seconds left in the half as the Bucs prepared to punt. Camarda's kick was fair caught at the Carolina 26. The Panthers got a seven-yard run by Hubbard and a leaping 22-yard catch by D.J. Chark that went out of bounds at the Bucs' 45 with 29 seconds to go. A deep shot to Mingo didn't hit, with McCollum in tight coverage. A holding call erased a long scramble by Young and made it third-and-16 near midfield with 11 seconds to go. A scrambling Young managed to get off a throw down the right sideline but Winfield jumped in front of Thielen to break it up.
The Panthers got the ball first in the second half, starting at their 25, but two runs by Hubbard lost a combined one yard thanks to tackles by Diaby and Logan Hall. Davis had good coverage on a third-down pass intended for TE Stephen Sullivan and the incompletion led to a punt that was downed at the Bucs' 38. A scrambling throwaway and a White run for one yard led to a long third down and Mayfield underthrew an open Evans for an incompletion. Camarda's punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
After a false start, Young rolled out right and hit Mingo for 10 yards. On third-and-three, the pocket collapsed on Young and a blitzing Winfield got to him for a sack of nine yards. The ensuing punt was fair caught at the Bucs' 31. Mayfield tried a shot downfield to Godwin on the first play of the drive but it was incomplete. On third-and-six, Mayfield was swarmed over almost immediately and went down for a sack of eight yards by OLB Marquis Haynes.
Carolina's next drive after the punt began at the Panthers' 35. A one-yard Hubbard run and an incompletion quickly made it third-and-nine and Sullivan held on to a back-shoulder throw at the Bucs' 48 for a first down. Hubbard got eight on his next carry and Mingo got wide open on the left sideline on the following play for a 31-yard gain to the Bucs' nine. Hubbard fought through several tacklers all the way to within inches of the end zone on the next play, then got the remaining inches for the score on second down. Carolina took a 10-7 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter.
That lead lasted all of one play. To start the ensuing drive, Mayfield hit Evans in stride on a post and he ran the length of the field for a 75-yard touchdown. Evans was originally ruled down at the one but Bowles threw the challenge flag and it was ruled that he was able to extend the ball over the goal line on his dive at the end of the play.
Young started the next drive with a pair of incompletions, the second with two unblocked pass-rushers bearing down on him. Winfield was on the spot again on third down, this time getting to a pass over the middle intended for Chark and breaking it up at the last second. Thompkins fair-caught Hekker's seventh punt of the night at the Bucs' 30.
White gained four yards on first down but lost five on the next play to make it third-and-11. An extremely hard pass down the left seam to Evans was too high to haul in and the Bucs had to punt it back. Rookie DB Josh Hayes made a great open-field tackle on Smith-Marsette on the kick and the Panthers had to start on their own 22.
Two Hubbard runs got 12 yards and a first down but sacks by Diaby and Russell killed the drive after that and the Bucs got it back at their 33 with less than a minute left in the third quarter. Mayfield once again started the drive with an explosive play, this time an improvised toss to White that the back turned upfield for a gain of 20. That brought the third quarter to an end and White started the fourth with a four-yard run. A scrambling deep shot to Evans was incomplete, but a hands-to-the-face penalty on OLB Yetur Gross-Matos gave the Bucs a new set of downs at the Carolina 38. A run around right end by White was good for 11 yards, and an inventive fake-screen end around to Thompkins sprung him for five more down to the 22. A shotgun handoff to Edmonds took it down to the 19 and made it third-and-two. Mayfield gave it to Godwin on an jet sweep going left to right and he found the corner to take it all the way to the end zone. That increased the Bucs' lead to 21-10 with 11:36 left in regulation.
Two Hubbard runs started Carolina's next drive with a total of 11 yards, but he got just one on the next carry and Sanders slipped on a second-down catch to make it third-and-three. Young converted that with a short pass to Mingo, who fumbled at the end of the play but saw Sanders recover it at the Bucs' 42. It was third-and-seven after two short Sanders runs, Davis came up big again with his downfield coverage of Mingo for an incompletion. The Panthers went for it on fourth-and-17 and got very bold, throwing a go down the right sideline that was caught by Chark for a 30-yard gain to the eight. Thielen caught a seven-yard pass but was dropped at the one by Christian Izien. Hubbard got it in on the next play over left tackle. Carolina went for two to try to make it a three-point game. OLB Joe Tryon Shoyinka got to Young for an apparent sack but was flagged for a facemask foul, moving the ball to the one. Young scrambled to his right and was able to get the ball into the end zone for the two points and a 21-18 Bucs lead.
Mayfield threw left to Evans on the first play of the next drive and the receiver ducked under a tackle to get 11 yards to the Bucs' 36. However, a pass to White two plays later lost four yards and on third-and-11 Mayfield couldn't get the ball in to Godwin on the left sideline. The Bucs had to punt with 3:40 left and Camarda's kick got only to the Carolina 31. Two Hubbard runs made it third-and-one and Young was chased into a throwaway on third down. The Panthers went for it on fourth down and a scrambling Young motioned for Thielen to turn his route upfield. Winfield got there in time to intercept the pass and just get two toes inbounds.
That gave the Bucs possession at their own 43 and White ran for two yards on first down, with the Panthers using their second timeout with 2:10 left. Mayfield then threw a quick slant to Evans, who hauled it in to make it third-and-one at the two-minute warning. Just needing a first down to be able to drain the rest of the clock, the Bucs gave it to White, who broke through the line and into the clear before sliding to the ground 30 yards later at the 18. It took two Mayfield kneel-downs from there to end it.