When you beat your opponent by 40 points and rack up a team-record yardage differential of 402 yards, you're probably going to need a handful – or two handfuls – of ceremonial Game Balls. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave one to every deserving player from their 47-7 annihilation of the Detroit Lions on Sunday they might not have enough footballs left to practice this week.
For instance, Tom Brady finished the game with a 158.3 passer rating. That's as high as passer rating goes. He almost literally couldn't have been better, and he racked up 348 yards and four touchdowns without even playing after halftime. Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski each scored twice and Evans had his biggest game of the year. Chris Godwin made a number of gritty catches and also found the end zone. Rookie running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn even gave the Bucs' running game some bite.
On defense, Devin White did it again, leading a four-sack barrage with his ninth of the year. Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul didn't have one of those sacks but he did have two quarterback hits and two passes defensed, one of which was nearly his third interception of the season. Speaking of interceptions, cornerback Herb Miller, fresh off the practice squad, grabbed his first career pick. Lavonte David did Lavonte David things, including yet another forced fumble against a running back.
Here's the thing: We're not here to hand out a barrel of Game Balls. 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 my turn to go first.
Scott Smith: Mike Evans
I tried not to go too deep into Brady's accomplishments in case Carmen picks him and wants to flesh out her argument. Suffice it to say, I could easily pick The G.O.A.T here and be done with it. But Evans had a huge game, too, and he played all four quarters (willingly). He made big plays on passes from both Brady and Blaine Gabbert and finished with 10 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns. It's the third time he has scored twice in a game this year but those are his high-water marks for both receptions and yards. In fact, those 181 yards are the fourth-most he's ever put up in a game.
If you're wondering if the Buccaneers made a special effort to get Evans the ball as he pursued an historic milestone, you don't have to guess. Head Coach Bruce Arians readily confirmed that was the case, and of course it was a lot easier to do so when the Bucs rushed out to a 34-0 halftime lead. Evans came into the game still 221 yards short of the 1,000-yard mark, something he hit in each of his first six seasons. Only Evans and Randy Moss have done that. Nobody has done it seven times in a row, so Evans has a chance to stand alone. And now his chance is a lot better as he heads into the final weekend only needing 40 more.
Meanwhile, Evans was chasing and catching some other franchise records. His two touchdown receptions gave him 13 on the season, breaking his own record of 12 set in 2014 and then matched in 2016. Those 13 scores are also now tied for the single-season franchise record in touchdowns of any kind. James Wilder set that mark way back in 1984 and no Buccaneer matched it for more than 35 years. Until now.
With one game still to play, Evans has 8,220 receiving yards, the 10th-most in NFL history through a player's first seven seasons. He also has 61 career touchdown catches, which means he's just the seventh player ever to surpass 8,000 receiving yards and 60 touchdown catches in his first seven seasons. Check out this list he just joined: Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Larry Fitzgerald and Sterling Sharpe. That has a decidedly Canton-esque ring to it.
So, yes, Tom Brady and several others were definitely as worthy of receiving the Game Ball as Evans, but all the records broken or challenged by Evans sways the argument for me.
Carmen Vitali: QB Tom Brady
I wanted to go defense to give them some representation and like you said, Scott, there were plenty of players there that are deserving of game balls. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles decided Devin White needed to keep blitzing and it paid off. Native-son Will Gholston had a great day in his hometown, racking up a sack, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed. Lavonte David, the longest tenured Buccaneer, finally got his playoff berth.
But after all that, I don't think you can ignore the fact that Brady was perfect for the first half. Scott mentioned it above, he had a perfect 158.3 passer rating after completing 22 of 27 pass attempts for 348 yards and four touchdowns in just two quarters. Brady joined Craig Erickson as the only players in Bucs history to record a perfect passer rating. He led the Buccaneers to 34 points in those first two quarters, which is the second-most points the Bucs have ever scored in a single half. Their 410 net yards are the most in a single half in franchise history and it's not close. It gave the Bucs offense a head start to the most offensive yards they've ever had (588), with some help from Blaine Gabbert in the second half, as well as the highest net-yardage differential by the end of the game, outgaining the Lions by 402 yards after the defense held Detroit to just 187 total yards.
I digress. Back to Brady. He now has 36 passing touchdowns this season, which sets a new single-season franchise record. A week after setting the record for most passing yards in a single half with 320, he broke his own short-lived record in the first half against Detroit. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Info, over that four-quarter period (second half against Atlanta and first half against Detroit), he threw for 668 yards and six touchdowns, thereby becoming the first player in the last 40 years to have over 600 yards passing in a four-quarter period.
Brady did so well, in fact, he got himself pulled. Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert played the entire second half, finishing with a 131.4 passer rating of his own.
The biggest thing was the fact that Brady and his offense started fast, as both players and coaches had been preaching for the last couple weeks. The conversation surrounding the Buccaneers, despite the fact that they were still winning, was 'the slow starts' and quite frankly, Coach Arians had enough. He said after the game that they elected to receive the ball and give Brady and company a chance to make a statement first. Well, Brady did that and then some. Even after the first play of the game ended up being an incompletion, Brady went on to hit Evans for 33 yards. Two plays later, Brady threw another 33-yard pass, this one to his buddy Rob Gronkowski for the first touchdown of the game. Brady continued to wheel and deal to eight different receivers. Five different Buccaneers got in the end zone thanks to Brady in the first half as he led the offense to its most dominant performance to date. That has to count for something – and in this case, I think it's Game Ball.
Now, from those two choices, who do you think should get the Game Ball for Tampa Bay's win over the Lions in Week 16? If you think that neither Carmen nor I nominated the best choice, you can also choose "Other." Vote in the poll below.