The Buccaneers’ season has teetered on the brink of disaster since October, yet all the tribulations couldn’t quite kill this team when it mattered most.
With Sunday’s division clash against the Carolina Panthers essentially serving as a do-or-die situation, Brady, Mike Evans and other veterans stepped up as expected for players of their caliber in a comeback 30-24 win to clinch a second consecutive NFC South title and third straight playoff berth.
As has been the usual, the game was often ugly and featured too many undisciplined mistakes, but clutch time brought the best out in everyone. While nobody will label this as a magnificent division title, a win is a win and we have some shoutouts to give.
Offensive Top Performers: Tom Brady and Mike Evans
We’ve gotta hand down a split decision here because one doesn’t have their respective superb day without the other.
Brady washed off the stink of a mostly wretched December with his best game of the year, completing 34 of 45 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns, as well as one rushing score. He was completely locked in throughout the afternoon, threading the needle and conjuring his patented Brady black magic to ensure a Bucs triumph.
Just getting to the tournament with Brady gives you a better chance than most, so Tampa has to feel good about what they saw out of the 45-year-old Sunday.
And of course, we will give effusive praise to the greatest offensive player in franchise history. Evans broke his 12-game scoreless drought in volcanic fashion, catching 10 balls for 207 yards and three tuddies. He made life hell for both C.J. Henderson and rookie cornerback Keith Taylor Jr., toasting them for long scores of 57 and 63 yards, respectively.
Evans’s huge day also put him over 1,000 yards for the year, further extending his NFL record of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin a career (nine). He has not only that distinction, but he’s now knocking on the door of most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons...period. Jerry Rice is currently first all-time with 11, and Evans is now tied for second with Hall of Famer Tim Brown.
No. 13 has experienced one of his tougher seasons in recent years, but there’s no doubt he remains a top-tier option when everything is clicking between him and Brady.
And last but not least, we’ll briefly highlight Chris Godwin. It’s not often that a nine-catch, 120-yard day gets overshadowed, but Godwin served his role and continues to work his way back into the upper echelons of NFL stardom. It hasn’t always been easy this year, but he’s still knocking on the door of 100-catch, 1,000-yard season of his own. He’s going to be pivotal for any playoff run.
Defensive Top Performer: EDGE Anthony Nelson
Back-to-back weeks with a game-changing turnover will absolutely get you recognized. Nelson once again delivered when the Bucs needed it most, sacking Sam Darnold late in the fourth quarter and forcing a fumble to set the offense up for another touchdown and significantly improve the chances of victory.
ANTHONY NELSON STRIP SACK RECOVERED BY VITA VEA pic.twitter.com/ilkoJFC0zi— Sports by Tampa Bay Times (@TBTimes_Sports) January 1, 2023
He now sits at 5.5 sacks for the year. While the snap counts aren’t out yet, a third straight game of playing every snap seems likely and should be commended. The team’s edge rush would be completely nonexistent without him.
Sean Murphy-Bunting had an excellent day of his own, grabbing a highlight interception down at the Bucs 2-yard line to stymie Carolina early in the third quarter. While SMB has received his fair share of criticism and was rightfully riding the bench most of the year, he stepped up for an injured Carlton Davis and contributed vital snaps.
Special Teams Top Performer: P Jake Camarda
It could be no one else.
With less than a minute remaining, the Bucs sat at the Carolina 44, clutching their slim lead, and needed to punt back to the Panthers. A bad snap and poor blocking created a potential catastrophe as Camarda corralled the ball and took off toward the sideline.
It looked like he would just run out of bounds and limit the damage, but he instead loosed a last-second, rugby-style kick that deftly dropped inside the Carolina 5. In the face of unreal pressure, Camarda remained calm and salvaged the play in a fashion that savedthe day for the Bucs.
While an illegal man downfield penalty forced a re-kick, the impromptu punt still proved to be a net positive since it avoided an unlucky turnover on downs and drained 10 seconds off the clock. To top it all off, Camarda made an excellent normal kick anyways that was downed at the Carolina 8.
That sequence of events alone should put him in the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week conversation. At the least, he receives the prestigious Bucs Nation distinction for his efforts.