With a 30-24 victory over their division foe, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers punched their ticket to the playoffs. The Bucs clinch the NFC South crown with a win over the Panthers, cementing their place atop the hierarchy. Despite a slow start brought on by missed opportunities and self-inflicted penalties, Tampa Bay imposed their will with an explosive aerial attack, led by Mike Evans. Evans became the first Bucs' receiver to post 200 receiving yards and three touchdowns in a single game. Tom Brady completed 34-of-45 passes for 432 yards and a 127.3 passer rating inside Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers had a rough start in Week 17, as the Panthers traveled 75 yards on six plays, capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass from Sam Darnold to tight end Tommy Tremble. Carolina had five first downs and Darnold went 4-of-4 for 60 yards to open the must-win contest. On the ensuing drive for the Bucs, a Donovan Smith holding penalty pushed the club back to first-and-10. Then a fumble by Chris Godwin gifted the Panthers the ball. The defense stepped up and forced a quick three-and-out following a Lavonte David third-down stop.
To start the second frame, two-straight incompletions to Mike Evans and Julio Jones led to a field goal attempt. Ryan Succop missed a 53-yarder, keeping the score 7-0 at Raymond James Stadium. The Panthers added to their lead on the next drive as Darnold connected with D.J. Moore from third-and-five on a 24-yard touchdown, extending their lead 14-0. Penalties and miscues derailed the Bucs' subsequent drive, ending with a third-down sack of Brady.
The momentum shifted on the next offensive possession. Brady connected with Evans on a go-route down the right sideline. With the 63-yard touchdown reception, Evans surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the ninth-consecutive season. Two plays later, the defense tallied their first turnover. Sam Darnold dropped the snap and Devin White recovered at the two-minute warning, which resulted in a Succop 22-yard field goal. Prior to halftime, the Bucs trimmed their deficit, 14-10.
Late in the third quarter, the Buccaneers had the opportunity to take the lead following a Sean Murphy-Bunting interception. However, the Bucs' promising 90-yard, 13-play drive ended with a blocked Succop 26-yard field goal attempt. Once again, the momentum shifted in favor of the Panthers. Carolina answered with a touchdown. Darnold found a wide-open Shi Smith over the middle for a 19-yard score, giving the visiting team a 21-10 advantage in the fourth quarter following a 91-yard drive. The Bucs quickly followed suit on a 75-yard, three-play drive, culminating in a 57-yard-deep bomb from Brady to Evans blazing down the field. He hit his go-to target in stride, making it a 21-16 game (two-point attempt failed). Evans became the offensive catalyst, taking advantage of his one-on-one matchup outside with subtle movements off his release. After his third touchdown of the day, which gave Tampa Bay their first lead of the game (24-21) – Evans surpassed the 200-yard marker in the Week 17 clash.
The defense continued the trend with a splash play. Anthony Nelson sacked Darnold and forced the ball out. Vita Vea recovered the fumble inside the 10-yard line and Tampa Bay capitalized with a Brady one-yard rush up the middle. A Jake Camarda recovery on a potential disastrous punt sealed the victory for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay clinched the NFC South division title for the second-straight year.