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Buccaneers of the Week: vs. Panthers

Which five players were Tampa Bay’s best in Sunday’s regular season finale against Carolina?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday afternoon didn’t start off on the best foot for the Buccaneers, but by the end of the night, absolutely everything went according to plan as they beat the Panthers 41-17 and got help elsewhere to lock up the NFC’s No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay fell behind 7-3 in the first half against Carolina and looked helpless on both sides of the ball for much of the opening 30 minutes. Elsewhere, the Rams were taking care of business with a 17-0 lead over the 49ers.

From the final minutes of the second quarter on, everything turned for the Bucs. They took a lead they never looked back on and put on a show to win comfortably as the 49ers came back, forced overtime and eventually won, setting the Bucs up with home-field advantage through the NFC Divisional Round.

Before we turn the page to Sunday’s matchup with the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Round, we have our final Buccaneers of the Week points to award. Of course, we’ll have a separate “Buccaneers of the Playoffs” series coming up, so this will finalize things for the regular season.

A reminder of how this works: Each week, I’ll rank the top five Bucs of the Week and assign them point values, which will determine their place in the “Buccaneers of the Week Standings.” No. 5 gets one point, No. 4 gets two and so on. The 2018 Buccaneer of the Year was Mike Evans, while Shaquil Barrett was the 2019 Buccaneer of the Year. In 2020, Tom Brady was the Buccaneer of the Year and, for the first time ever, we had a Buccaneers of the Playoffs series that ended with Devin White earning the top spot. OK, let’s get it going. But first...

Honorable Mentions

Scotty Miller made a late cameo in the game, taking an end-around for a 33-yard touchdown… Breshad Perriman caught five of his six targets for 44 yards, with one of his catches coming in spectacular fashion near the sideline to set up a touchdown… Le’Veon Bell caught his lone target for a one-yard touchdown… Tampa Bay’s offensive line was solid once again on Sunday, with Tristan Wirfs grading out as Pro Football Focus’ fifth-best Buc in the game (78.5)…

Steve McLendon totaled four tackles (all solo) and two quarterback hits in the win… Joe Tryon-Shoyinka knocked down two passes… Rakeem Nunez-Roches totaled two tackles (one solo) and a fumble recovery, finishing as PFF’s highest-graded Buc in the game (93.2)… Andrew Adams recorded a late interception of Sam Darnold.

OK, now on to the top five.

5. Anthony Nelson (One point)

With Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul once again sidelined on Sunday, Anthony Nelson was tasked with getting the Buccaneer pass rush going against the Panthers. And while Tampa Bay didn’t generate quite the same amount of pressure it did when it saw Carolina two weeks ago, Nelson had himself a solid game. He made his presence felt early, taking Sam Darnold down for his fifth sack of the year. Later in the first quarter, he made a nice stop in coverage to force a 4th & 6, which the Panthers failed to convert. Overall, the former Iowa Hawkeye posted five tackles (three solo), a sack and two tackles for loss. He finished the regular season with a sack in each of the final three games, stepping into a significant role with the team’s top two pass rushers out and a rookie in Joe Tryon-Shoyinka coming off the other edge. In a season that has seen sack numbers dip for Jason Pierre-Paul and Devin White, Nelson has been one of the players to pick up the slack. He gets another Bucs of the Week point this week to finish with three for the year, tying for No. 13 in the season standings.

4. Antoine Winfield Jr. (Two points)

Week in and week out, Antoine Winfield Jr. gets the job done for the Buccaneer defense. He did so again on Sunday afternoon, leading the team with eight tackles (six solo), a sack and a fumble recovery. What he has meant to the back end of Tampa Bay’s defense can’t be overstated, as he has been a steady presence amid some major injury problems for the secondary. And when he was out with his own injuries, there was a noticeable difference. His excellent Week 18 performance capped off what was another phenomenal season, which came after an impressive debut year in 2020. His sophomore season saw him total 88 tackles (62 solo), two sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and six passes defended. He’ll once again need to step up in the playoffs the way he did last January, as the Bucs appear to be a bit shakier as a unit heading into Wild Card Weekend. The good news, though, is that they’ll have their young safety this time around against the Eagles after he missed the previous matchup in October, which the Bucs won 28-22. With two points this week, Winfield finihes with 10 on the season, good for the No. 6 spot in the season standings.

3. Rob Gronkowski (Three points)

It almost feels like a crime for Rob Gronkowski to get just three points this week. There’s an argument to be made for him to get the full five points from the season finale on the back of a performance that saw him catch seven of his 10 targets for 137 yards, which gave him the most 100-yard games by a tight end in NFL history. The future Hall of Fame tight end was at the center of the Tampa Bay offense, and he’ll need to continue to be there for his longtime quarterback as the playoffs begin. More often than not, opposing defenses simply don’t have the personnel to handle Gronkowski’s size and physicality when he lines up wide, and the Bucs will need to take advantage of that with Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown missing from the lineup. What we saw from Gronkowski on Sunday was a fitting end to what was quite the season for the 32-year-old. He only played in 12 games, but he still finished with 802 yards and six touchdowns on 55 catches (14.6 YPC). He made big catch after big catch against the Panthers in Week 18 and while he’s settling for three Bucs of the Week points, the extra $1 million in incentives that he earned in the game should soften that blow. He also earned a top-four spot in the season standings, tying for fourth with Chris Godwin (21 points).

2. Tom Brady (Four points)

In Sunday’s 41-17 win over the Panthers, the Buccaneer of the Year for both 2020 and 2021 put the finishing touches on an MVP-caliber season. Tom Brady completed 29 of his 37 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns, doing enough to break the franchise records for single-season passing yards and single-season passing touchdowns. Things weren’t so great early on, but he turned things on to end the first half and marched the Bucs down the field to take a lead that they never relinquished. He was lights-out in the second half as well, earning himself an early end to the night—but not before earning Rob Gronkowski both of his $500,000 incentives. Finishing the 2021 regular season with 5,316 yards and 43 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, Brady followed up his first year as a Buc with an even better year two. His 5,316 yards are the third-most in a single season in NFL history, and he finished the year as the NFL’s leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Although the Bucs aren’t where they’d like to be health-wise on either side of the ball heading into the playoffs, Brady’s presence is massive. When you have Tom Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion, in your locker room, you’re not going to be easy to beat in the playoffs. With four more points in Week 18, Brady finishes the year with 49—and a comfortable lead atop the season standings.

1. Mike Evans (Five points)

As great as Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady were on Sunday afternoon against the Panthers, this game belonged to Mike Evans. Tampa Bay couldn’t move the ball early in the game and it only got things going once Evans got going. He caught a 14-yard pass on a key 4th & 2 in the second quarter, and that conversion eventually resulted in a field goal drive. Then, with the Bucs facing 3rd & 10 deep in their own territory near the end of the first half, Evans got free for a 37-yard gain. Keeping that drive alive helped the Bucs continue marching down the field before they took the lead late in the first half. The eighth-year receiver went on to have a massive second half as well, catching touchdowns from three and 20 yards out to put the exclamation mark on another fantastic season. He went over 1,000 yards for the eighth straight year and once again set a new franchise record for single-season receiving touchdowns (14), continuing to cement himself as the best offensive player in Bucs history. Without Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, it’s massive for Evans to step up as a dominant force in the playoffs. He needs to take over games the way he took over Sunday’s contest. And heading into the Wild Card Round, he’ll be able to stake a claim to the No. 2 spot in the Bucs of the Week Season Standings, finishing the year with 29 points.

FINAL 2021 Buccaneers of the Week Standings:

  1. Tom Brady — 49 points
  2. Mike Evans — 29 points
  3. Leonard Fournette — 22 points
  4. Chris Godwin/Rob Gronkowski — 21 points
  5. Antonio Brown — 12 points
  6. Antoine Winfield Jr. — 10 points
  7. Shaquil Barrett — 9 points
  8. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka/Jordan Whitehead/Cyril Grayson Jr. — 8 points
  9. Devin White/Lavonte David/Offensive Line — 7 points
  10. Mike Edwards— 6 points
  11. Vita Vea/William Gholston — 5 points
  12. Jason Pierre-Paul/Tyler Johnson — 4 points
  13. Ryan Succop/Anthony Nelson — 3 points
  14. Giovani Bernard/Ndamukong Suh/Ronald Jones II — 2 points
  15. Carlton Davis — 1 point