NFC South Reporter
TAMPA, Fla. — As a microcosm for a strange non-counting Bucs season, Sunday’s game against the Panthers was nearly perfect.
They were down 14-0 early. They trailed 21-10 early in the fourth quarter. And then they scored 20 straight points and clinched not only a comeback win, but an NFC South division title, complete with the totally unnecessary late-game drama of an onside kick and a final desperation play multilateral of the band of Stanford of Carolina.
“NFL games are hard to win,” said Tom Brady, who passed for 432 yards and three touchdowns, all to wide receiver Mike Evans, to lead the comeback. “We’re always looking for a way to keep them excited in some way. [I] Hopefully they weren’t as exciting as we made them, but happy that we got the win and happy that so many guys contributed.”
Tom Brady leads Bucs to NFC South title
Tom Brady had a field day, throwing for 432 yards and three TDs and rushing for another TD. The Bucs beat the Panthers 30-24 to secure a playoff spot.
For the third time in five weeks, the Bucs overcame a double-digit deficit in a comeback win. They’ve only done it three times in a full season twice before in their history, one of them in the 2020 Super Bowl championship season with Brady.
Tampa Bay (8-8) has won eight games this season, and in five of them (including Sunday), the Bucs managed to score more points in the fourth quarter than the first three. It’s not a recipe for consistent success, but the Bucs have basically done it: Add their two wins over the Saints with wins over the Rams, Cardinals and Panthers, and they scored 28 points in the first three quarters and 74 points of the fourth quarter.
“They never got down, they never got disgusted,” coach Todd Bowles said of his triumphant procrastinators. “We’ve been through a lot this year, so we have a lot of resilience and strength. So we don’t get down when we’re down, score-wise. They buckled down, stayed together as a team and it came through.”
Tampa Bay’s wild finish on Sunday was incredible and also completely normal by recent standards: struggling to score a half or more, then finishing with the kind of furious comeback you’d expect from a seven-time Super Bowl champion.
Carolina arrived as winners of four of six games, rushing for a franchise-record 320 yards last week and knowing that if it won Sunday, it could clinch an unlikely division title with another late-season victory. And they built a strong character advantage, with little success running the ball and quarterback Sam Darnold’s first three-touchdown game in three years.
Darnold went 4-for-4 for 60 yards on the opening drive, and the Bucs stalled on offense until Darnold threw another touchdown for a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Tampa Bay woke up with three minutes left in the half when Brady threw a 63-yard touchdown run down the right sideline to Evans, who had somehow gone 11 games without a score.
The Bucs recovered a Carolina fumble at the 13-yard line, but could only muster a field goal to fall behind 14-10. The third quarter saw them drive 90 yards, from their 2 to the Carolina 8, only to stall again and have Ryan Succop’s 26-yard field goal attempt blocked to keep them down four points Carolina responded with a 91-yard touchdown run for a 21-10 lead, scoring on the first play of the fourth quarter, and it looked like another game was slipping away from the Bucs.
But Brady found Evans again down the right sideline, this time for 57 yards, then did it again for a 30-yard touchdown with 6:47 remaining. The two had combined for double-digit touchdowns in 2020 and 2021, but had struggled to connect this season, especially on deep passes: Evans finished with 207 yards, his highest total in any game since 209 as a rookie in 2014.
“I’ve missed him too many times this year, so it was nice to connect with him and hopefully we can continue that,” Brady said. “I think we will.”
In the opener against Carolina in Week 7, Brady had Evans wide open for a long early touchdown and the ball simply slipped out of the Pro Bowl receiver’s hands, the start of two months of frustrating misconnections between both of us. Sunday was a reminder of how good the Bucs can be when these two are on the same page.
“They were really, really good balls,” Evans said. “One of the best games I’ve seen Tom play since he’s been here. They fell in the basket every time. He had an amazing game.”
Brady has played in 23 seasons and 381 games, but Sunday was the first time he threw for more than 400 yards, completed 75 percent of his passes and threw at least 45 without an interception. The Bucs defense even helped close out the win, with outside linebacker Anthony Nelson getting a Darnold sack and defensive lineman Vita Vea pouncing on the loose ball to set the Bucs up at the Carolina 6, with a Brady touchdown on a quarterback rush.
There was still time for drama. After Carolina kicked a field goal to pull within six points, the Bucs had to punt from near midfield with 42 seconds left. Rookie player Jake Camarda got away with a low hit, but had the skill to grab the loose ball, run to the touchline and kick out, rugby style. A penalty forced a punt, but their next punt was downed at the Carolina 8-yard line, so instead of the Panthers taking it and getting the ball in Bucs territory, they had 92 yards left for the end
Out of Hail Mary range, the Panthers had one final play with multiple sides, the final drive coming at the Bucs’ 41-yard line. Tampa Bay had another comeback win and a division title. With the Bucs locking up the NFC’s No. 4 seed, they may even rest some starters in next week’s game in Atlanta, where all that matters is finishing with a winning record. Another game that started badly and stayed that way until the fourth quarter somehow ended in celebration.
“Every year, you try to win the division, and we win the division,” Bowles said. “It doesn’t matter how you win the division. My heart’s not much left, but I feel great. We can’t get to where we want to be without winning the division, and we won the division.” “
For much of Sunday’s game, it looked like Brady was in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, but instead, the Bucs had red “CONQUERED: SOUTH” jerseys to wear in the locker room. They have back-to-back division titles for the first time in their history, with an easy week ahead and then a home playoff game. Who knows where they will go from there?
“We fought through a lot of tough things this year,” Brady said. “Happy to win the division. It’s always hard to do that … great to qualify. We still have a tough game left to try to finish strong, and we know we have at least one extra extra game.”
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Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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