It was the best of times, it was the worst of times - but in the end, it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning the NFC South for the second straight season for the first time in franchise history.
On a day when Bruce Arians was inducted into the Ring of Honor and the Bucs faced another 4th-quarter deficit, Brady and Evans got the offense going while the defense stood tall with the game on the line.
Let’s Pick Six.
Six Topics Suitable For Conversation
1.) Where Has This Been? For an offense that couldn’t seem to get out of their own way for most of the game, the Bucs exploded in the 4th-quarter for 20 points, overcoming a 21-10 deficit. It was thanks in large part for the connection that has been sorely lacking this season as Tom Brady went for over 430 yards and three touchdowns - all three going to Mike Evans who finished with 207 yards on ten receptions, just two yards shy of his career high. All of a sudden, the vertical attack that has been non-existent all season looked like a well oiled machine. Evans over 200 yards, Chris Godwin with 120 on nine targets and nine receptions, Russell Gage with more clutch receptions and finishing with 33 yards. If the Bucs could just flip a switch and start playing like this, why haven’t they? Maybe it was the yips, maybe it was the self doubt, but maybe this is what it took to really get them going.
2.) Greatest Offensive Player In Franchise History. Mike Evans extended his NFL record of 1,000 yard seasons to start a career to nine. He’s had his struggles this season, sure. Bad drops, not being on the same page as Brady on multiple occasions, not scoring a touchdown since week four against the Chiefs - but there is no doubt Mike Evans will finish his career as the best offensive player in Bucs history. Say all you want about what Brady did for this team. They don’t win a Lombardi without him - but Evans has been doing it day in and day out since he arrived. 1,000 yard seasons with Josh McCown, Mike Glennon, Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick - it didn’t matter. Mike was going to be Mike and get the job done. He did it lined up opposite Vincent Jackson, then opposite guys like Chris Godwin, DeSean Jackson, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski - but also with guys like Adam Humphries, Cycil Shorts, Cam Brate, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Freddie Martino. It didn’t matter if there was a legitimate threat on the field with him or if the defense knew it was Mike or nothing - he got the job done. Anyone who says he isn’t a Hall of Fame player is lying to themselves. Appreciate greatness.
3.) It Can All Change In A Heartbeat. Usually when people say that, they’re bracing you for bad news. I’m not. This offense can change in the blink of an eye with the return of Ryan Jensen who is back to practice. The rushing lanes get a little wider, Tom Brady gets a little more time, the receivers can get a little bit further or find that hole in the defense for more yards. The entire landscape of the Bucs offense improves with Jensen - and now it looks like they’ll get him for at least one game as they host a playoff game in two weeks. The big question is what the Bucs will do next to Jensen. Does Nick Leverett stay at left guard or do the Bucs slide Robert Hainsey - who has played extremely well in Jensen’s absence - back to the position he played at Notre Dame before being converted to center? Leverett has stepped up in a big way, but you wonder if the protection and rushing attack would get even better keeping Hainsey in to line up between Jensen and Donovan Smith.
4.) Still Head-Scratching Decisions. The win is great. Going to the playoffs is great. But goodness gracious, Todd Bowles makes some unbelievably bad decisions during games. For starters, trotting Ryan Succop out to try a 53-yard field goal when his pre-game long was 52-yards - and he’s 2-of-7 from 50+ this season - is mistake number one. Twice the Bucs had the ball with 4th-and-2 or less inside their ten yard line and twice Bowles opted to kick the field goal. One was made, the other blocked. Brady was beyond frustrated that he was pulled off the field on the first after the Bucs got a huge takeaway and could have tied the game before half. Trust your best players in the biggest situations, regardless of previous struggles. This is what has made Brady Brady. Coming up big in those situations and coming through for his team. Stop calling games not to lose and start finding that killer instinct. You have to have that in the playoffs. Playing not to lose will get you eliminated from the jump.
5.) Antoine Winfield Jr. This poor guy was set up to fail from the start of the game. Winfield Jr. is an All-Pro caliber safety. In fact, had he not dealt with so many injuries and missed games, he would be named an All-Pro this season. And instead of leaving one of your best players at his normal position - where he’s one of the best at that position in the entire league - you put him at slot corner. The result? An early defensive pass interference call, a defensive holding call, and a touchdown given up to D.J. Moore. For as great as Winfield Jr. is, he is not a slot corner and should not have been shadowing the Panthers’ best receiver. Yes, Carlton Davis was out - but you still have Zyon McCollum, you still have Dee Delaney. You have actual corners on your roster you can use. Even if you needed to use a safety because you didn’t trust the other corners, you don’t move your star safety out of his position to a spot where he doesn’t perform well. Use Keanu Neal. Use Logan Ryan. Leave Winfield Jr. where he’s best because that’s what’s best for the team.
6.) Jake Camarda Is A Hero. Oh my goodness. In what could have spelled absolute disaster and potentially cost the Buccaneers the game, Jake Camarda saved the day. After a botched snap on a punt with 42-seconds left and the Bucs up six, Camarda had one of the best and smartest plays I’ve ever witnessed. He recovered and ran towards the sideline before cutting up field and somehow punting the ball away where it died and was downed by McCollum at the two yard line. Yes, there was a flag on the field for ineligible player downfield and they had to do it all over again - but that was a huge disaster averted. And the situational awareness by a rookie to not crumble, not give himself up, not run out of bounds, not attempt a dangerous ill-advised pass, but to actually punt the ball away is simply incredible. On top of all that, he wasted ten seconds off the clock before eventually still pinning the Panthers inside their own 10-yard line with just 26-seconds and no timeouts remaining. Camarda should go in the Ring of Honor for that play alone. Absolutely phenomenal.
Six Numbers To Consider
2 - More seasons of 1,000 yards and Mike Evans will tie Jerry Rice for the most consecutive 1,000 seasons in NFL history
9 - Receptions needed by Chris Godwin next week to break the franchise record for receptions in a season (Keyshawn Johnson - 106)
3 - Straight years the Bucs have made the playoffs, second longest streak in franchise history (4 straight - 1999-2002)
7 - 175+ yard receiving performances for Evans since 2014 - tied for second most in the NFL over that stretch (tied with Antonio Brown, Tyreek Hill leads the league with 8)
18 - Multi-receiving touchdown games by Evans since 2014, second most in the NFL over that span (Davante Adams - 20)
1 - Player in NFL history with 30+ completions in five straight games and 30+ completions in ten games in a season - Tom Brady
Six Best Tweets
HAT TRICK. MIKE. EVANS. HAT. TRICK. pic.twitter.com/43lEoCZQyI— Bucs Nation (@Bucs_Nation) January 1, 2023
Oh sweet.. Jake Camarda is the greatest athlete in the NFL— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) January 1, 2023
WHAT A PLAY
And I realize this next one isn’t Bucs related - but it is Bucks related and might be one of the most wild coincidences of all time. Highly suggest you watch it - but maybe not if you’re an Ohio State fan.
This is incredible.— CHRIS TORELLO (@TorelloSports) January 1, 2023
The ball dropped on every screen lol.
Six Super Bowl Bets
1.) Buffalo Bills - Biggest test of the year coming up tonight
2.) Philadelphia Eagles - Back to back losses, but should get Jalen Hurts back to lock up the top seed
3.) Kansas City Chiefs - If the Bengals win, they’re in line for the top seed in the AFC
4.) Cincinnati Bengals - No one in the NFL hotter than they are
5.) San Francisco 49ers - Defense getting it done, Brock Purdy shocking the world
10.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Offense got going and if Jensen is back in the postseason, watch out