The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are NFC South champions after defeating the Carolina Panthers 30-24 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The offensive fireworks that were expected from the Buccaneers all season long, finally came to fruition at the most important moment. Tom Brady connected with Mike Evans for three long touchdowns passes, as the Bucs overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Panthers and secure a playoff spot.
Tampa Bay started this game slowly, as the Panthers drove the ball right down the field on their opening drive for a touchdown. On the Buccaneers opening possession, Chris Godwin fumbled after a long reception, and it looked as if this would be another terrible performance in a season that has had too many of those. But the defense settled down, the offense finally hit on some explosive plays, and the Bucs played up to their potential in the most important game of the season.
Tom Brady completed 34 out of 45 passes for a whopping 432 yards, with three passing touchdowns, and a rushing touchdown, in his best performance of the year. Brady was sharp from the first snap and would have had more completions if not for some drops, as well as some bad route running. Although he was sacked three times on the day, he did have significantly more time in the pocket than at any point this year, and it reflected in the stat book, and on the scoreboard. The Bucs scored 30 points for the only the second time all season, after averaging 30 points per game last season.
The Buccaneers first touchdown of the game came on a 63-yard strike from Brady to Mike Evans. At the time, the Bucs were down 14 points, had no momentum whatsoever, and looked to be on the verge of getting run out of their own building. That long pass ignited the offense, and the defense, as the Bucs went on to outscore the Panthers 30-10 for the rest of the ballgame.
Evans had his best game of the season as well, hauling in 10 catches for 207 yards, and three touchdowns. His 57-yard touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter, brought the Bucs back to within one score. And his 30-yard touchdown with 6:47 left in the game, put the Bucs in the lead for good. His tag team partner, Chris Godwin, also had a great game on Sunday, despite the early fumble. Godwin caught nine passes for 120 yards, and a two-point conversion. Both players looked healthy, and created enough separation, for Brady to have easy completions, as the offense totaled 478 yards.
Running backs Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White, were also big contributors on Sunday. Although they did not run the ball well (67 total rushing yards), they did haul in nine combined receptions for 45 yards, which allowed the Bucs to keep possessions alive, and ultimately cash in on three big scoring passes. Russell Gage was another solid contributor on Sunday as he chipped in with three receptions for 33 yards.
Tampa’s defense wasn’t great in stopping the Panthers from moving the ball, as Carolina racked up 400 total yards of offense. But they did hold the Panthers to 74 yards rushing, and forced three huge turnovers, which proved to be the deciding factor in this game. When the defense stops the run, causes havoc with sacks and turnovers, and gives the offense short field scoring opportunities, the team usually has tremendous success. The Bucs turned two of those turnovers into 10 points, in what ultimately was a six-point ballgame.
Lavonte David once again led the Bucs with eight total tackles in another solid performance, in a season (and career) of solid performances. His fellow linebacker, Devon White, contributed with seven total tackles, and had a fumble recovery. Outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka had a great day, totaling seven tackles, and providing consistent pressure on Panther’s quarterback Sam Darnold. The fourth member of the linebacking quartet, Anthony Nelson, forced his second fumble in the past two games, on a strip sack of Darnold, that essentially sealed the game for the Bucs.
Defensive lineman William Gholston was strong up the middle for the Bucs, as he had five total tackles, with two of those coming for a loss. Vita Vea recovered the fumble forced by Nelson’s sack, in which he displayed his freakish athleticism. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting filled in admirably for Carlton Davis, recording three total tackles, two pass deflections, and snatching an interception.
While the offense, and defense, played at a high level on Sunday, Tampa’s special teams' unit was not so great. Kicker Ryan Succop missed a field goal, had another field goal blocked, and missed an extra point. Granted, this was his first bad game of the season, so he does deserve a little bit of slack for this performance.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, was rookie punter Jake Camarda, who may have made the play of the day, if not the season. The Buccaneers were kicking the ball back to the Panthers with under one minute to play. Camarda received a low snap, and somehow managed to elude the oncoming rush, and kick the ball with his non-kicking leg, to avoid giving the ball back to Carolina in scoring position. Although a penalty was called, Camarda’s effort (and his subsequent punt) helped the Bucs seal the deal and win the division.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been atop the NFC South since week one. They remain at the top after week 17 and will be at the top when the season is over. Although this season has been disappointing on many levels, the fact is that the Bucs are division champs, and will host a playoff game. All of their dreams and goals still lie ahead of them and can be accomplished. If this game, and more specifically, this offensive performance, is any indication of what the future holds, Tampa Bay may once again become Champa Bay.
The Bucs wrap up the regular season next Sunday in Atlanta against the Falcons at 1 PM ET.