NFC South Reporter
TAMPA, Fla. – Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes to Mike Evans, the last two of which rallied the Bucs from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Panthers and clinch the NFC South title with a 30-point victory -24 at Raymond James Stadium. .
Brady, throwing for 432 yards, rallied the team from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter for the third time in less than a month, having done so in wins against the Saints and Cardinals. Trailing 21-10 early in the quarter, he connected twice in the fourth quarter with Evans, who had three touchdown catches after going without one since Week 4.
The Panthers (6-10) could have set themselves up for the division title with a win next week, but instead are eliminated from the playoffs. They had a shot at a tying field goal with 2:32 left, but Anthony Nelson sacked Sam Darnold and forced a fumble that Vita Vea recovered at the 6-yard line, setting up the 1-yard touchdown run. Brady’s yard on a quarterback for a layup. away game
The Bucs (8-8) have won back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history, avoiding the possibility of Brady missing the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. They’re locked into the NFC’s No. 4 seed, so in theory they could rest the starters in next week’s regular-season finale in Atlanta.
Brady’s 432 yards matched his best in three seasons in Tampa, and Evans’ 207 yards were his most since 209 his rookie year in 2014.
Carolina, two scores later, got a 49-yard field goal by Eddy Pineiro to pull within six points with 59 seconds left, but his onside kick attempt was recovered by the Bucs’ Cade Otton.
Just as Carolina broke away with Darnold’s third touchdown pass to give them a 21-10 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Bucs answered with another long pass from Brady to Evans, that for 57 yards. A failed two-point conversion left them trailing 21-16 with 13:49 to play.
Evans hadn’t found the end zone since Week 4, but he did it three times Sunday in Pampa Bay’s two longest drives of the season, scoring from 63 and 57 yards. His 30-yard touchdown run with 6:47 left put the Bucs up for the first time, and Brady’s two-point conversion to Chris Godwin put the Bucs up three.
Carolina dominated the game early, taking a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Darnold went 4-for-4 for 60 yards on the opening drive, capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tommy Tremble. The Bucs’ first drive ended with a fumble by Godwin, and another ended with a missed 53-yard field goal by Ryan Succop. Carolina extended its lead on Darnold’s second touchdown, this one to wide receiver DJ Moore, for a 14-0 lead.
The Bucs woke up in the final three minutes of the half, with Brady hitting Evans for a 63-yard touchdown. Darnold couldn’t throw a snap and the Bucs recovered the loose ball, setting up a short field goal to cut the score to 14-10 at the half.
Tampa Bay had a chance to take the lead in the third quarter, driving all the way to their own 2-yard line after an interception by Sean Murphy-Bunting. The Bucs drove 90 yards to the Carolina 8, but missed two plays there, and even a short Succop field goal attempt was blocked by Carolina’s Yetur Gross-Matos to keep the game at 14-10.
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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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