The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rang in 2023 with something they have only seen one other time this season – 30 points on the scoreboard.
Tom Brady completed 34 of 45 attempts for 432 yards and 3 touchdowns as the offense came alive in the fourth quarter to propel the Bucs to a 30-24 win over the Carolina Panthers. Mike Evans caught 10 of 12 targets for 207 yards 3 touchdowns. Leonard Fournette was the Bucs’ leading rusher with just 28 yards on 10 carries.
A Lackluster Start
It was a quick start for the Panthers, who took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards in 6 plays for a 7-0 lead. Sam Darnold found TE Tommy Tremble in the end zone from 17 yards out for the score.
The Buccaneers managed to find some success throwing the ball on their opening drive, with Evans drawing a pass interference penalty and Chris Godwin hauling in a catch and scampering 24 yards to the Carolina 34. Unfortunately, the ball was punched free from Godwin’s arms, and Carolina recovered to kill a promising drive.
The teams exchanged punts before the Bucs drove the ball to the Carolina 35. Facing 4th and 11, Todd Bowles opted for a 53-yard Ryan Succop field goal attempt, but the kick was wide and short. Carolina took over at their own 43 and drove 57 yards for a 14-0 lead, with Darnold connecting with DJ Moore from 24 yards for the score.
Welcome Back, Mike Evans
After a pair of punts, the Bucs started at their own 20 yard line with 3:02 left in the first half. After a Godwin first down, Brady dropped back and launched a ball deep downfield for Evans, who caught it in stride and trotted in for a 63-yard touchdown. The Fox broadcast noted the 57.6 air yards was Brady’s longest such throw since Week 1 of the 2017 season, so his arm strength still seems to be there.
And it was Brady’s deep passes to Evans in the second half that saved the Bucs’ bacon. Carolina jumped ahead 21-10 10 seconds into the fourth quarter on a third down completion to Shi Smith for a 19-yard touchdown. Four plays later, from their own 43, Brady dropped back and looked to Evans, who had gotten past CB C.J. Henderson and raised his hand. He let it fly, and again it was in stride for Evans, who took it to the end zone. The two point conversion failed, and it was 21-16 with over 13 minutes left. Six plays later, Carolina would punt, and Brady and the no huddle Bucs offense went to work again. Completions to Godwin, Fournette, Russell Gage, and Cade Otton got the Bucs to the Panthers 30.
Then, Brady lobbed the ball deep again to Evans, who snagged it in the end zone for the Bucs’ first lead of the day. A two-point conversion to Godwin pushed the lead to 24-21, and the momentum was fully on the Buccaneers’ side thanks largely to the renewed Brady-to-Evans connection.
A Nerve-Racking Ending
After a pair of punts, Anthony Nelson came free off the edge on first down and stripped Darnold of the ball, with Vita Vea making the recovery. Two plays later, Brady snuck it in for the score and a 30-21 lead with just 1:58 left. Ryan Succop missed the extra point, which was his third missed kick of the game.
But Carolina wasn’t done. Darnold drove the Panthers to the Bucs’ 26 while saving all three timeouts, and Eddy Pineiro trimmed the lead to 30-24 with 0:59 left. The Bucs then recovered the onside kick and ran the ball three times to force the Panthers to burn their timeouts.
However, on the ensuing punt, the snap was low, and Jake Camarda had to pick it up and run. While running, he punted the ball and it bounced down inside the five yard line, where it was downed. However, an ineligible man downfield penalty on Ko Kieft forced a re-kick, but that was fair caught at the eight. Camarda deserves a ton of praise for avoiding disaster on the bad snap.
Carolina would get up to their own 40 for one last hail mary attempt, but a short pass and a bunch of laterals failed around the Bucs’ 30.
Letting it Fly
The Bucs were much more aggressive throwing the ball today, and it paid off handsomely. Albeit out of necessity while trailing by double digits for a decent part of the game, the Bucs showcased Brady, his still very capable arm strength, and their talented pass catchers. And it worked. From the shotgun and working quickly, Brady scanned the field and connected with 7 different receivers. In addition to Evans’ big day, Godwin also broke 100 yards receiving, hauling in all 9 targets for 120 yards and a two-point conversion.
The run game was again nearly nonexistent, as Tampa Bay totaled a measly 67 yards on 25 carries (2.7 ypc). So the Bucs went with a 45/25 pass-to-run play split. And it worked. Sometimes, you just have to lean on the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, it seems.
A Record Setting Day
Evans broke the 1000-yard receiving mark for the 9th straight time, which tied Tim Brown for the second-most consecutive 1000-yard seasons in NFL history. Only Jerry Rice has more with 11. Evans now has 77 catches for 1124 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season.
The Bucs also won consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history.
The Buccaneers travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons next Sunday, with their playoff position already finalized. The Panthers, now eliminated from playoff contention, visit the Saints, who cling to very slim wild card hopes after their 20-10 win at the Eagles today.