NFC South Reporter
TAMPA, Fla. – The Buccaneers offense had ground to a halt, managing two first downs in its last five drives, and the slump was bad enough that Carolina — one-win Carolina, with the worst record in the NFL — had scored to take a 10-7 lead midway through the third quarter.
On the very next play, Mike Evans woke up the offense, the Bucs and their stadium, gaining 75 yards for the longest touchdown of his career, sparking Tampa Bay to a 21-18 win over Carolina and getting the Bucs out of a freefall that had seen them lose six times in seven games.
Evans caught a pass from Baker Mayfield in stride at his 44-yard line and sped down the field, and as Panthers corner C.J. Henderson pushed at him, he leaped from the 4-yard line, extending the ball over the pylon as he flew over the corner of the end zone.
“Baker threw an unbelievable ball,” the 30-year-old Evans explained. “It’s a play we worked on in practice a lot. I got my steps right. I wasn’t short on my route, and it worked. He hit me in stride, and I was able to beat the defense to the end zone.”
Officials initially ruled him out at the 1-yard line, but Evans even told a nearby official: “That’s a touchdown, baby!” The Bucs challenged the ruling, and in the time it took a tired Evans to throw up on the sidelines, the call was reversed to a 75-yard touchdown. The crowd, already loud from the play, celebrated even louder.
“It was huge,” Evans said. “You felt it on the sideline. The crowd erupted. It was huge for us.”
The Bucs are now 5-7, but playing in the NFC South, they’re just a game behind the first-place Falcons, and they’ll go to Atlanta next weekend, knowing if they beat the Falcons, they’ll be tied for the division lead with four games to play, holding the tiebreaker on Atlanta.
Evans has been the best part of a struggling Bucs team, and his next catch after the touchdown extended an NFL record that’s been a testament to his consistency throughout his career. The 11-yard catch gave him 1,005 receiving yards for the season, giving him 10 straight seasons with 1,000 to open his career. He’s held that record for three years, and if he can do it again in 2024, he’ll match Jerry Rice for the most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons at any point in a career. He’ll also move past Randy Moss for the second-most 1,000-yard seasons, period.
“I don’t know what more you can say,” coach Todd Bowles said of Evans. “He’s been like this for 10 years now. Over 60 catches, 10 years in a row (another NFL record), over 1,000 yards 10 years in a row. You know he’s getting the ball and everybody’s trying to stop him and he makes plays, over and over. It’s a credit to him, his work ethic, the way he approaches the game. Unbelievable.”
If Evans is the Bucs’ most constant presence, they won Sunday with help from the most unexpected of players stepping up. A cluster of injuries at inside linebacker — Lavonte David, Devin White and rookie SirVocea Dennis all missed the game — left Tampa Bay with two seldom-used backups, K.J. Britt and J.J. Russell, as their only healthy linebackers against the Panthers.
Then, late in the first quarter, Britt injured his back and had to be carted to the locker room, leaving the Bucs with one linebacker — Russell, who had seven tackles in 10 games in his two-year NFL career. Safety Ryan Neal, who had lost his starting role a month ago, had practiced only one day at linebacker as an emergency plan, and those two played every down the rest of the way.
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Evans was an enormous part of the Bucs’ offense on Sunday. Mayfield finished 7-for-12 for 162 yards on throws to Evans, and 7-for-17 for 40 yards on throws to everyone else. The two have connected for touchdowns 10 times — only the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill has more — and Mayfield gave him credit for turning the game around Sunday.
“He’s a special player, obviously,” Mayfield said. “I mean, hats off to him. He’s done it so consistently for so long, and that play is just an example of how special he is. Just the run after the catch, the ability to be exactly where you’re supposed to be on that route and then make, obviously, a huge play after that. Extremely happy for him. We needed that. We needed that little spark and he was the guy to bring it to us. Nobody better than him.”
The Panthers were playing for the first time under interim coach Chris Tabor, following the firing Monday of coach Frank Reich, and Carolina kept the game close to the very end. After Chris Godwin’s 19-yard touchdown put the Bucs up 21-10 in the fourth, the Panthers answered, as rookie Bryce Young converted a fourth-and-6 with a 30-yard pass to receiver Adam Thielen, setting up a Chuba Hubbard touchdown and Young two-point conversion to get within 21-18 with 5:02 left.
The Bucs punted the ball away with 3:31 left, giving the Panthers one drive to tie or even win the game. But on third-and-1, they opted to roll out Young, who was pressured and threw out of bounds incomplete, and on fourth-and-1, his sideline throw to Thielen was picked off by Bucs safety Antoine Winfield to seal the win with 2:14 left.
“He’s been great. He had a sack as well earlier,” Bowles said. “He can see the ball very well from back there. Just putting him down there where he can make plays, he’s starting to catch them and if he catches all the ones they throw to him, he’ll be great. He caught one today and he makes play after play, week after week.”
Evans is in the final year of a five-year, $82 million contract, having re-written all the team’s career receiving records. It’s possible he could be playing his last season in Tampa; the Bucs have limited cap flexibility, leaving the door open to another team signing him away. But games like Sunday go a long way to cementing his status as one of the team’s most beloved players, and that could help him finish his career with the team that drafted him.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked if this year’s continued success helps his chances at re-signing. “When that moment comes, it will come. But right now I’m just focused on getting this team to the playoffs.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, 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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