Everything was set up so nicely for the Buccaneers in Week 15, as they had won four straight games and given themselves a chance to clinch the NFC South in front of the home fans at Raymond James Stadium with a win against—of all teams—the Saints.
Instead, Tampa Bay’s regular season woes against New Orleans continued. The defending Super Bowl champions were shut out, falling 9-0 to drop to 10-4 on the season. Even worse, they lost Chris Godwin (knee) and Patrick O’Connor (knee) for the season and saw Lavonte David (foot) and Leonard Fournette (hamstring) land on injured reserve for the remainder of the regular season.
Of course, it’s not as if all is lost for the Bucs. They will still win the division for the first time since 2007 with one win in their final three games (or one Saints loss in their final three games). That means they’ll still get a home playoff game in the first-round, but they may very well have to go on the road after that.
Tampa Bay’s latest chance to clinch the NFC South—and its second consecutive playoff berth—came Sunday afternoon. On the road against the Panthers (5-9), the Bucs were extremely short-handed. In addition to the previously mentioned players that are now on injured reserve, Mike Evans (hamstring), Antoine Winfield Jr. (foot), Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder), Breshad Perriman (reserve/COVID-19 list) and Rakeem Nunez-Roches (reserve/COVID-19 list) we’re all out against Carolina.
The Panthers entered Sunday with plenty of questions of their own. With playoffs likely out of the question, they’re simply looking to limp to the season’s finish line without running back Christian McCaffrey and a host of other key contributors. Plus, head coach Matt Rhule also told reporters during the week that Cam Newton would start under center and play most of the game, though Sam Darnold—activated from injured reserve this week—would also play at some point.
So, as short-handed as the Bucs were on the day after Christmas, they still came in as 11-point road favorites. ESPN’s FPI Matchup Predictor gave them a 73.8% chance to grab that elusive 11th win and fourth-ever NFC South title.
The Panthers took an early 3-0 lead, but the Bucs weren’t phased. Jordan Whitehead and the defense dominated the entire game and the offense made the most of what they had, with Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Cameron Brate and Ronald Jones II scoring touchdowns as Tampa Bay cruised to a 32-6 win and their first division championship since 2007.
The Panthers won the coin toss and elected to defer, giving Tom Brady and the depleted Buccaneer offense a shot to take an early lead. Ronald Jones II took his first carry of the game for five yards, then Brady found the returning Antonio Brown for four yards to set up 3rd & 1 at the 34-yard line. Jones got three yards on third down to move the chains and keep the drive alive. The Bucs went to their young running back again from there and he got four more yards before two Brady incompletions led to Sterling Hofrichter’s first punt as a Buc. He sent it 45 yards to the Carolina 14, but a 16-yard return by Alex Erickson set the Panthers up with decent field position at their own 30.
Cam Newton found Tommy Tremble for 14 yards to open the first Carolina possession, but William Gholston quickly set the offense back by sacking Newton for a loss of six. Jordan Whitehead came flying in on the blitz to set up the sack, forcing the Panthers into a 2nd & 16. Newton found Robby Anderson for eight yards on second down to set up 3rd & 8, but before the conversion, Carolina called its first timeout of the afternoon. Tampa Bay’s defense couldn’t get off the field after the timeout, as Newton hit D.J. Moore for 10 yards to the Bucs’ 44.
The rough opening possession for the Buccaneer defense continued from there, with Newton running for a 33-yard gain to the 11. That’s when Todd Bowles’ unit stood tall, as Chuba Hubbard was stopped for a two-yard gain on first down. A neutral-zone infraction on Shaquil Barrett gave Carolina half the distance to the goal on second down, but he stopped Ameer Abdullah for a loss of two to make up for it before Mike Edwards blitzed and forced a third-down incompletion. That brought out Lirim Hajrullahu to drill a 24-yard field goal on 4th & Goal, giving the home team a 3-0 lead with 7:17 to go in the opening quarter.
Tampa Bay’s second offensive series began the way its first one did, with Jones getting five yards on first down. Brady then found Jones for a three-yard gain to set up 3rd & 2, which the Bucs converted with a four-yard pass from Brady to Brown. A false start on Rob Gronkowski brought the offense back to 1st & 15, but Jones got 13 yards back on a screen before Ke’Shawn Vaughn broke free for a 55-yard touchdown run—thanks in large part to a nice downfield block by Cyril Grayson. With Ryan Succop’s PAT, the Bucs took a 7-3 lead with 4:13 left in the first quarter.
A five-yard pass from Newton to Anderson and a big open-field tackle by Whitehead on Newton forced a quick 3rd & 4 for the Panthers and Sean Murphy-Bunting looked to have broken up a third-down pass, but it bounced off his hand and his helmet before Moore caught it for a 15-yard gain and a first down. But after forcing another third down, Tampa Bay’s defense got a splash play. Barrett dropped into coverage and tipped Newton’s pass into the air, then Whitehead came down with it for his second interception of the season.
The Bucs took over at their own 49 after the interception, but went backward in a hurry. Jones got nothing on first down and Brown was called for offensive pass interference on second down to force a 2nd & 20. Brown got seven yards back, but the offense still had a 3rd & 13 to face on the other side of the quarter break. The good news? Tampa Bay held a 7-3 lead after 15 minutes.
The Bucs opened the second quarter with a huge third-down conversion, with Brady getting enough time from his offensive line to find Brown for a 19-yard pickup to the Carolina 35. Three straight four-yard runs by Jones got the offense inside the 25 before a loss of two on his next run put the offense behind the sticks. An incomplete pass then brought up 3rd & 12, but before that third down, Brady called the Bucs’ first timeout. After the timeout, Brady found Cameron Brate for a seven-yard gain. Rather than go for it on 4th & 5, Bruce Arians elected for a 36-yard field goal attempt by Succop. He nailed it, giving Tampa Bay a 10-3 lead with 10:54 to go in the first half.
When the Carolina offense took the field at its 25 to start the next drive, Sam Darnold trotted out to lead the offense to some boos from the home crowd. Those same fans were cheering two plays later, when Darnold found Shi Smith for a 63-yard gain after some busted coverage. That put the Panthers in a 1st & Goal situation at the 10 and, though the play clock ran out, the officials missed it and granted Carolina its second timeout. Newton came back in after the timeout and got two yards on first down before a screen to Abdullah was blown up by Whitehead for no gain. Darnold then relieved Newton on 3rd & Goal, only to get sacked by Barrett to force a Hajrullahu 29-yard field goal. The kick got the Panthers back within 10-6 with 7:20 to go before halftime.
With Barrett’s 10th sack of the season, he became the fourth player in franchise history to post multiple seasons with double-digit sacks, joining Simeon Rice, Lee Roy Selmon and Warren Sapp.
Jones opened the next Buccaneer possession with a nine-yard run, then a Brady screen to Brown went for one yard and a first down at the 35. Vaughn got just one yard on the next play, but Brady found Brown for a 10-yard gain to move the chains on the next play. The two continued to link up from there, with Brown running a great route to catch a 22-yard pass to the Panthers’ 32. An offsides penalty on Carolina gave the Bucs another free five yards, then Jones got two yards to bring up 2nd & 3 at the 25. Pressure got to Brady on the next play, forcing an incompletion and a 3rd & 3. A poorly executed traffic pattern on third down resulted in another incompletion and another Succop field goal try. He connected from 43 yards out, extending Tampa Bay’s lead back to seven with 2:40 left in the first half.
With Darnold in the game at quarterback to open the next drive, Sean Murphy-Bunting and a host of Bucs dropped Hubbard for a loss of two to bring up 2nd & 12—as well as the two-minute warning.
After the two-minute warning, Darnold found Ian Thomas for a four-yard gain to set up 3rd & 8, but not before the Bucs called their second timeout of the half with 1:53 to go. Darnold then found Terrace Marshall Jr. for six yards on third down, bringing the punt team out and forcing timeout No. 3 by the Bucs with 1:48 left in the half.
Brady and the offense got the ball back at their 31 with a chance to add to their lead, with 1:41 and no timeouts to work with before halftime. Any points would be big for Tampa Bay, considering Carolina was set to receive the opening kickoff of the second half. The Bucs immediately got within scoring range, as Cyril Grayson Jr. fought through illegal contact to haul in a pass from Brady and take it 62 yards to the Panthers’ 7-yard line.
The Panthers got the Bucs to 3rd & Goal at the 4, but Brady found Cameron Brate for an easy touchdown on a slant to add to the lead. After a Carolina neutral-zone infraction on the PAT, the Bucs elected to go for two. It didn’t work out, though, keeping the lead at 19-6 with 1:19 left in the second quarter.
Whitehead was called for roughing the passer to open the next Carolina drive, but a solid stop by Kevin Minter and a pass breakup by Jamel Dean brought up 3rd & 8. Tampa Bay’s defense then got off the field, with Barrett forcing Darnold into an incompletion. After the punt, the Buccaneer offense took over at its 17 with 34 seconds left in the half. However, the visitors were content to run the clock out and take a 19-6 lead into the locker room.
A holding penalty on the opening kickoff of the second half put the Panthers deep in their own territory, giving them a 1st & 10 at the 14. Newton started the half as the Carolina quarterback, finding Moore for a nine-yard gain to start things off. Hubbard got nothing on 2nd & 1, with Whitehead and Vita Vea teaming up to stop him short of the sticks. He got four yards on 3rd & 1, though, extending the drive. Two incompletions forced a 3rd & 10, then the Buccaneer defense got off the field thanks to a sack from Anthony Nelson.
After a 20-yard punt return by Kenjon Barner, the Bucs quickly faced a 3rd & 7 at their 49. Brady, as he did so often in the first half, found Brown for a 13-yard pickup and a first down at the Carolina 38. A few plays later, Gronkowski made his presence felt with a 23-yard catch to the Panthers’ 9. Defensive holding on Jeremy Chinn gave the Bucs a 1st & Goal at the 4, but the offense couldn’t cash in. Instead, Tampa Bay settled for a 21-yard field goal from Succop to extend the lead to 22-6.
Jordan Whitehead continued to take over the game on Carolina’s next drive, stopping Newton for no gain on first down and breaking up a pass on second down. Vita Vea then sacked Newton on third down to force another Panthers punt.
Starting from their 43, the Bucs had a chance to really put the game out of reach. An 11-yard pass to Brown, an 11-yard scramble by Brady and a 14-yard end-around to Grayson got the offense inside the red zone, then Brady hit Grayson for a 12-yard gain to the 7. On the next play, Jones took the ball around the left end and found the end zone. With Succop adding the PAT, Tampa Bay’s lead got to 29-6 with 2:08 left in the third quarter.
Devin White pressured Darnold into a throwaway to open the next Carolina possession, then Whitehead made another nice play to force Anderson out of bounds to bring up 3rd & 10. The Panthers kept the drive alive, with Moore tipping a pass to himself for a 19-yard gain. One first-down later, we reached the end of the third quarter with Tampa Bay leading 29-6.
Carolina picked up another third-down conversion early in the fourth quarter, continuing to drive deeper into Tampa Bay territory. But after a split sack for Gholston and Nelson, Darnold missed Abdullah on third down to bring up 4th & 11. Forced to go for it down 23 in the fourth quarter, Darnold misfired under pressure and that brought and end to what was once a promising drive for the Panthers. With 11:52 to go, the Buccaneer offense took over at its own 24.
The Bucs went three-and-out on their next drive, having to punt the ball away for the first time since their opening possession. After the kick and a Buccaneer holding penalty, the Panthers took over at the Tampa Bay 48. But three straight incompletions brought up a 4th & 10 try, and Kevin Minter—filling in for the injured Lavonte David—sacked Darnold to turn the ball over at the Panthers’ 45.
Jones took off for a 16-yard gain to open the next drive before getting dropped for a loss of one on the next play. Two straight incompletions brought Succop back out for another field goal try, and Succop hit this one from 48 yards out to give Tampa Bay a 32-6 lead with 7:59 to go.
The field goal is good, and we're up 32-6 pic.twitter.com/wg9XY65csh— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) December 26, 2021
The Buccaneer defense continued to dominate on the next possession, with William Gholston getting another sack to bring his total for the day to 2.5—a career high. More pressure on the next play, this time from Steve McLendon, forced another incompletion and another Carolina punt.
Vaughn ran for 12 yards to open the next Tampa Bay possession, then Brady later found Brown for another first down. That was enough to get some of the second team in, with Blaine Gabbert taking over at quarterback and new signing Le’Veon Bell getting his first snap in the backfield. His first carry went nowhere and his second went for a loss of one, bringing up a 3rd & 11 with less than three minutes to go. An incompletion intended for Scotty Miller meant another punt, giving the ball back to Carolina with just over two minutes to go.
The Panthers were committed to putting a garbage-time touchdown on the board, getting down to the Bucs’ 11 before appearing to turn the ball over on downs. However, a holding call gave them two more shots. An incompletion with one second left meant one last opportunity, but Dee Delaney broke up a Darnold pass in the end zone to win the game.
With their 32-6 victory, the Buccaneers officially clinched the NFC South for the first time since 2007. That guarantees them at least one home playoff game.
NFC South Champs ‼️ pic.twitter.com/dauIAfghmS— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) December 26, 2021
Quick Notes & Stats
- With his second-quarter sack, Shaquil Barrett became the fourth player in Buccaneer history to record multiple seasons with double-digit sacks. He joined franchise legends Simeon Rice, Lee Roy Selmon and Warren Sapp.
- Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s 55-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was the longest run of his career.
- With his second-quarter touchdown reception, Cameron Brate officially passed Kevin House for the third-most in franchise history (32).
- The 62-yard pass from Tom Brady to Cyril Grayson Jr. late in the second quarter was the longest play of the season for Tampa Bay to this point.
- Brady finished the day 18-of-30 for 232 yards and a touchdown.
- Grayson had a fantastic game, catching all three of his targets for 81 yards while rushing for 14 yards on his lone carry.
- Vaughn ended the game as Tampa Bay’s leading rusher, totaling 70 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Ronald Jones II was effective in his own right, running for 65 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
- Antonio Brown had a big first game back, catching 10 of his 15 targets for 101 yards.
- The Buccaneer defense has now prevented opponents from reaching the end zone in back-to-back weeks. It’s the first time the team has done that since the 2003 season.
- The Bucs’ seven sacks against Carolina were the most they’ve had in a game since Dec. 8, 2013 against the Bills.
- William Gholston’s 2.5 sacks were a single-game career high.
- Jordan Whitehead was the leader for Tampa Bay’s defense on Sunday, totaling seven tackles (six solo), three passes defended and an interception.
- In addition to Gholston’s 2.5 sacks, Anthony Nelson, Kevin Minter, Vita Vea and Shaquil Barrett had one sack each and Steve McLendon had a half-sack of his own.
- Tampa Bay’s defense held Carolina to a 7-of-18 mark on third downs and an 0-for-2 mark on fourth downs.
- The Panthers were 0-for-3 in the red zone on Sunday.
- Ryan Succop went 4-of-4 on field goals in the game, connecting from 36, 43, 21 and 48 yards out.
- The Buccaneers are now 21-0 over the last two seasons when scoring 30-plus points.
- Tampa Bay now has seven division titles in its history, with three coming in the NFC Central and four coming in the NFC South.
The NFC South champion Buccaneers (11-4) will play their final road game of the regular season next Sunday, heading north to face the New York Jets (4-11). Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m.