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Buccaneers vs. Panthers recap: Tampa Bay overcomes slow start to win 41-17, finish 13-4

Things looked bleak for the Bucs for much of the first half on Sunday, but they bounced back and won 41-17 to finish the regular season with a franchise-best 13 wins.

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

After a wildly turbulent week thanks to the Antonio Brown situation, the Buccaneers (12-4) finally got back on the field Sunday afternoon to close out the regular season by hosting the Carolina Panthers (5-11).

Though Tampa Bay wrapped up the NFC South title when it beat Carolina on Dec. 26, the team still had plenty to play for on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. A win would be the Bucs’ 13th of the year and set a new franchise record. Not only that, but a victory over the Panthers combined with a 49ers win over the Rams would give them the NFC’s No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

Seeding and a bit of history were on the line for the defending Super Bowl champions in Week 18, but they still came in a bit shorthanded as they looked to get healthy for the NFC Wild Card Round next weekend. Leonard Fournette (hamstring), Ronald Jones II (ankle), Shaquil Barrett (knee), Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder), Lavonte David (foot) and Richard Sherman (Achilles) were all missing from the lineup.

The Panthers limped into Week 18 themselves, and at 5-11, they were looking to simply bring their frustrating season to a close on a good note. Just two weeks ago, the Bucs beat them 32-6 in Charlotte, so they were looking to avoid another regular season sweep at the hands of their division rivals.

The Bucs entered play Sunday as 10.5-point favorites, with ESPN’s FPI Matchup Predictor giving them an 85% chance to pick up a victory and finish the regular season 13-4.

Things started extremely slow for Tampa Bay, as it fell behind 7-0 and trailed 7-3 late in the first half after totaling just 48 yards of offense. But Tom Brady managed to lead a 92-yard drive to end the half, which gave the Bucs a 10-7 halftime lead that they didn’t look back on. The second half featured plenty of points and a great deal of history as the Bucs went on to win 41-17, finishing with 13 wins for the first time in franchise history.

Game Recap

The Bucs won the coin toss and elected to defer, which meant Sam Darnold and the Carolina offense would get things started at their own 25-yard line after a touchback on the kickoff by Bradley Pinion. Chuba Hubbard got two yards on first down before a second-down incompletion forced the Panthers into an early third-and-long situation. However, Tampa Bay’s defense failed to get off the field after Jamel Dean fell down in coverage and D.J. Moore took advantage with a 20-yard catch and a first down. Darnold avoided a Devin White sack on the next play and took off for a five-yard run, then Ameer Abdullah got stuffed at the line by Kevin Minter for a gain of one. A neutral-zone infraction extended the drive from there before an 11-yard pass to Moore two plays later got Carolina inside the 30.

The Tampa Bay defense’s frustrating opening drive only continued inside the 30, as a 3rd & 6 conversion got the Panthers in the red zone. A 10-yard run by Abdullah two plays later set the Panthers up with 1st & Goal from the 6, which brought Cam Newton into the game to a chorus of boos. Tommy Tremble got an end-around for four yards before Darnold returned and found Hubbard for a two-yard touchdown, finishing off an opening drive that went 75 yards in 14 plays while taking 7:38 off the clock.

After Jaelon Darden returned the ensuing kickoff to the 27, Tom Brady and the Buccaneer offense took over there with a chance to respond. Myles Hartsfield dropped Brady for a sack and a loss of two on first down before an incompletion intended for Rob Gronkowski brought up a dire 3rd & 12 from the 25. A third-down pass to Tyler Johnson wasn’t nearly enough, so just like that, the Bucs had gone three-and-out after a Carolina drive that drained more than half of the first quarter. Bradley Pinion’s 45-yard punt somewhat flipped the field, setting the Carolina offense up at its 25 to begin drive No. 2.

Anthony Nelson opened up the next Carolina possession with a 10-yard sack on Darnold before a near-interception by Jordan Whitehead. But even with a 3rd & 20, the Buccaneer defense couldn’t get off the field. A 19-yard catch by Moore made it a manageable 4th & 2, and the Panthers converted it with a 13-yard run by Moore. Two plays later, Carolina had another first down at the Tampa Bay 43. The defense forced a 3rd & 9 two plays later, with Matt Rhule calling a timeout before the conversion attempt. Nelson made a nice tackle in coverage to force a 4th & 6, but not before another Carolina timeout. After the timeout, Carlton Davis broke up a deep pass intended for Moore, giving the ball over to the Buccaneer offense and bringing us to the end of the first quarter with Carolina leading 7-0.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn picked up nine yards on his first carry of the game to open the second quarter, then he got two more to get the ball to midfield for the Bucs’ first first down of the afternoon. An incompletion and a five-yard pass to Cameron Brate then forced Tampa Bay into a 3rd & 5, which it failed to convert after a three-yard pass to Johnson. Bruce Arians elected to keep the offense on the field for a 4th & 2 at the 42, and that decision paid off as Brady found Mike Evans for a gain of 14 to the Carolina 28. That’s right about where the drive stalled, though, as Brady missed Evans on 3rd & 3 at the 21 to bring Ryan Succop out for a field goal attempt. He drilled the 39-yarder, getting Tampa Bay on the board and within 7-3.

The Panthers went back to work from their 25 and quickly marched right down the field on the Bucs, first getting a six-yard run by Darnold and a holding penalty on Davis before two Hubbard runs got 26 yards to the Bucs’ 38. A tackle for loss by Dean and an incompletion brought up a 3rd & 12, and once again, the defense couldn’t get a stop. An 18-yard pass to Abdullah kept the drive alive, then he picked up a first down to the 10-yard line with a couple more runs. But it was then that the Buccaneer defense stood strong. Minter dropped Abdullah for a loss of two on the next play before he caught a nine-yard pass to bring up 3rd & 2 at the 3. A short pass to Tremble set the Panthers up with 4th & Inches at the 1, and when Darnold tried to sneak it for the first down, he was stuffed. That gave the ball back to Brady and the offense at its own goal line, but not before an unsuccessful challenge by Rhule, which cost Carolina its final timeout of the half.

Trying to get out of its own end zone, the Bucs went to the ground to start what was just their third drive of the game. Vaughn got three tough yards on his first carry of the series before picking up two more to set up a 3rd & 5, but pressure got to Brady on third down and he threw incomplete, which meant Pinion had to come out for a punt from the back of his own end zone. He sent it 42 yards, giving the Panthers starting field position inside Buccaneer territory.

Offensive pass interference on the first play of Carolina’s next drive moved the offense back to its own side of the field. The Panthers got 13 yards back on 1st & 20, with Darnold hitting Robby Anderson to get the ball back to the Tampa Bay 45. Abdullah got two yards on the next play to bring up a 3rd & 5—and the two-minute warning.

After the two-minute warning, the Panthers tried a double pass, but it fell incomplete to bring up 4th & 5. On the punt, Darden called for a fair catch at the 8, so that’s where Brady and the offense would start with 1:48 left before halftime and three timeouts to work with.

Tyler Johnson caught a screen for no gain on first down and Brady threw behind him on second down, bringing up a 3rd & 10 from the 8 with 1:22 left. It was then that the Bucs got their biggest play of the day so far, with Brady finding a wide-open Evans for a 37-yard gain to the 45. Passes of seven and 19 yards to Gronkowski then got the Bucs to the Carolina 28 with 43 seconds to go. Breshad Perriman then made a phenomenal catch near the sideline for a 24-yard gain, setting up a 1st & Goal at the 4.

Two plays after the Perriman catch, Tampa Bay found the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Le’Veon Bell. Just like that, thanks to a 92-yard drive in 1:33, the Bucs had a 10-7 lead with 15 seconds to go before halftime.

After the kickoff, Darnold took a knee and sent the teams into their locker rooms with the Bucs leading 10-7.

Darden opened the second half with a return to the 24, setting Brady and the offense up there. After a Vaughn run for no gain on first down, Brady and Gronkowski linked up on back-to-back plays, with the first going for 42 yards and the second going for 19. With those two catches, Gronkowski hit one of his incentives for the season, netting him $500,000. After a six-yard run by Vaughn and a seven-yard catch by Johnson, Vaughn punched it into the end zone from two yards out to extend the Tampa Bay lead to 17-7. The drive took just 3:03 as the offense covered 77 yards in seven plays.

After a 29-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, the Panthers got their first drive of the second half started at the 32-yard line. Hubbard got five yards on the first play of the possession, but an incompletion intended for Tremble brought up a quick third down. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka then jumped a third-down screen perfectly and knocked it away, forcing a Carolina three-and-out. After the punt, Tampa Bay took over at its own 17, already leading 17-7.

The next drive began with a bit of history, as Mike Evans caught a five-yard pass to break 1,000 yards on the year. With that, he extended his record for consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons to begin a career, as he is now up to eight straight seasons. Evans was down briefly after the play, and the offense was eventually forced to punt after a bad drop by Brate on third down. The punt by Pinion set Carolina up at its 31 with 9:26 to play in the third quarter.

A five-yard pass to Moore, a one-yard pass to Anderson and a six-yard pass to Hubbard moved the chains for the Panthers to open their next drive, then Hubbard broke free for a 15-yard run into Tampa Bay territory. Darnold then delivered a 17-yard strike to Moore for a first down at the Buccaneer 25 before Darnold was sacked for a loss of two by Antoine Winfield Jr. The Panthers got six yards on the next play to bring up a 3rd & 6 at the 21, which they failed to convert as Darnold scrambled for just three yards. Carolina elected to kick on 4th & 3, with Lirim Hajrullahu connecting on a 35-yard field goal to get the visitors within 17-10 with 4:44 left in the third quarter.

Darden weaved his way through would-be tacklers for a 34-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, giving the Bucs solid field position at their own 38. Brady began the drive with a 10-yard pass to Evans for a first down at the 48. He then threw short to Perriman for a gain of four before hitting Vaughn out of the backfield for a pickup of seven and another first down inside Carolina territory. Perriman kept the ball moving with a nine-yard catch to the 32, then Vaughn moved the chains again a couple of plays later. After Brady ducked out of a sack and threw incomplete on the next play, he found Johnson for a gain of seven and Gronkowski for a pickup of 14 to set up a 1st & Goal at the 8. Vaughn caught a short four-yard pass on the next play to bring up 2nd & Goal—and the end of the third quarter. With 15 minutes left to play in the regular season, Tampa Bay had a 17-10 lead and was four yards away from adding on.

It didn’t take long for the Bucs to extend their lead at the start of the fourth quarter, as Brady found Evans for a touchdown. His 13th touchdown catch of the season—which tied his own single-season franchise record—put Tampa Bay up 24-10 with 14:56 to play.

The Panthers weren’t quite ready to go away, with a 39-yard kick return setting them up at the 44 before short gains got the ball down the field. A 15-yard catch by Abdullah got them to the Bucs’ 25, then the Tampa Bay defense eventually stood tall and forced Carolina into a 4th & 4 attempt at the 19. But the Bucs couldn’t quite get the stop. Instead, Darnold threw a pretty 19-yard touchdown pass to Anderson, getting the visitors back within a score. With 10:34 to go, the Bucs had a 24-17 lead.

Brady opened the next possession with a 28-yard pass to Gronkowski, then Le’Veon Bell got seven yards to the Carolina 40 as the clock ticked under nine and a half minutes. Perriman caught a short outlet pass on the next play and shook loose for a seven-yard gain to the 33, though he was shaken up on the play. Scotty Miller then caught a nine-yard pass in traffic, setting up a short Bell run for a first down inside the red zone. One play later, Brady dropped a dime to Evans for a 20-yard touchdown—and a new single-season franchise record for receiving touchdowns (14) for the team’s No. 1 guy. With the score, the Bucs went up 31-17 with 7:34 to play.

Tampa Bay’s defense came up with a splash play on the next Carolina possession, with Rakeem Nunez-Roches forcing a Darnold fumble. Antoine Winfield Jr. recovered the ball and set the offense up for a three-play, five-yard drive that resulted in a 40-yard field goal by Succop. With a 34-17 lead at the 5:04 mark, the Bucs had pretty much wrapped things up.

As if the game needed any more fireworks, Tampa Bay’s defense got a fourth-down stop on the ensuing possession and the offense paid it off with a 33-yard touchdown run by Scotty Miller. The one-play, 33-yard drive gave the Bucs a 41-17 lead with 4:07 to play.

The fun only continued from there, as Darnold threw deep for Anderson only to be intercepted by Andrew Adams. That gave the ball back to Tampa Bay with under four minutes to go.

A one-yard run by Kenjon Barner and a nine-yard run by Miller moved the chains for Tampa Bay, then Barner picked up a couple of yards on two carries to bring us to the two-minute warning. From there, the Bucs killed some clock. The Panthers got the ball back with 1:51 to go, but didn’t go much of anywhere. K.J. Britt picked up a nice five-yard tackle for loss and the Bucs eventually forced a turnover on downs with 37 seconds to go. One Gabbert kneel-down later, the game was over.

In the end, the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers closed out the 2021 regular season with a 41-17 win over the Panthers, getting to 13-4 on the year. And with the 49ers’ overtime win over the Rams, the Bucs earned the NFC’s No. 2 seed, meaning a win next week against the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Round would mean another home game in the NFC Divisional Round the following week.

Quick Notes & Stats

  • The Panthers absolutely dominated the opening quarter of play, outgaining the Bucs 106-3 and holding an advantage over them in first downs (8-0) and time of possession (13:26-1:34). Somehow, they only had a 7-0 lead as a result.
  • The time of possession stat wasn’t much better for Tampa Bay by the end of the second quarter, as Carolina held the ball for 21:37 of the opening 30 minutes. The Bucs coming back to outscore the Panthers 10-0 in the second quarter may have softened the sting of that, though.
  • Before their final drive of the first half, the Bucs had just 48 yards of offense. But that 92-yard drive on eight plays was enough to grab them the lead before halftime. It also gave themselves a chance to double up, as they elected to defer to the second half after winning the coin toss to start the game.
  • Between the final drive of the first half and the opening drive of the second half, Brady threw for 158 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-13 passing.
  • In the first half, Tom Brady became the second player in NFL history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons, joining Drew Brees.
  • Brady’s second-quarter touchdown pass to Le’Veon Bell was his 41st of the year, which broke the franchise’s single-season passing touchdown record he set in 2020.
  • Bell became the 90th player to catch a touchdown from Brady, which is the most unique touchdown recipients in NFL history.
  • Brady completed 29 of his 37 passes on Sunday for 326 yards and three touchdowns. He broke his own franchise record for single-season passing touchdowns, finishing with 43, plus he broke Jameis Winston’s single-season passing yards record, getting to 5,316 by the end of the night.
  • Those 5,316 yards are a new career high for Brady, plus they’re the third-most for a single season in NFL history.
  • With 89 yards on Sunday, Mike Evans extended his streak of 1,000-yard receiving seasons to eight. That extends his record for most consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons to begin a career, which he previously set in 2020.
  • Evans caught his 13th and 14th touchdowns of the season in the fourth quarter, which helped him break his own franchise record for receiving touchdowns in a single season.
  • Early in the first half, the Bucs lost Cyril Grayson Jr. (hamstring) for the remainder of the game.
  • Anthony Nelson’s first-quarter sack was his fifth of the season, extending his career high.
  • With his 137-yard game on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski now owns the NFL record for career 100-yard receiving games by a tight end (32).
  • Antoine Winfield Jr. finished the game as the Bucs’ leading tackler, picking up eight (six solo), a sack and a fumble recovery.

The Buccaneers will face the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Round next weekend, with the official date and kickoff time TBD.