Bucs clinch as Brady and Evans reunite

by Gary Shelton on January 2, 2023

in general

Monday, 4 a.m.

Finally, he threw it long. Finally, he threw it straight. Finally, he threw it to Mike Evans.

Finally, the Tampa Bay Bucs beat back a little of the disappointment of this season.

The Bucs came from behind -- again -- to beat the Carolina Panthers 30-24 and clinch the NFC South Sunday. As messy as the wade through the mud this season has been, the Bucs are headed to the post-season (they'll host Dallas) once again.

And, when you get down to it, this franchise hasn't been to the playoffs often enough to scoff at the notion.

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“Every year, you try to win the division, and we won the division," said Bucs' coach Todd Bowles. "It doesn’t matter how you win the division. My heart doesn’t have much left in it, but I feel great. We had one spot that we need to be. We can’t get to where we want to be without winning the division, and we won the division.”

It was the franchise's eighth division title, but none of them have felt quite as disappointing. The Bucs won just eight games, and five of those were comebacks. Along the way, the Bucs kept losing to bad quarterbacks, and short yardage plays seemed to confuse them, and the team could start a collection of penalty flags.

This day was different, however, partially because quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Evans seem to make up. Brady had his best game of the season (432 yards, his most since 2017.) His rating of 127.3 was his best of the season.

More importantly, that troubling disconnect with Mike Evans disappeared. Evans caught 10 balls for 207 yards, easily surpassing 1,000 yards on the season for the ninth consecutive time.

"(Brady) had more time to throw it a little more – he had some time to throw it," Bowles said. "Mike had some time to get down the field and they connected.”

On Sunday, Evans caught scoring passes of 63, 57 and 30 yards. Teammate Chris Godwin caught nine passes for 120 yards.

"Mike played awesome, like he always does," Brady said. "I love playing out there with him and he’s an amazing player – I’ve missed him too many times this year, so it was nice to connect with him and hopefully we can keep that going. I think we will.

“I think statistically we have not done a lot of great things this year. We haven’t been very good on third down, the red area, long balls, short balls, so I think everything needs to be cleaned up. That’s just the reality of where we’re at. We can’t miss guys, whether they’re five yards deep or 60 yards deep. I’ve just got to keep putting the ball out there for those guys to go make plays for us.”

Said Evans: "Tom was just dropping dimes. Those were some really, really good balls. One of the best games I’ve seen Tom play since he has been here. They were falling right in the breadbasket every time. He had an unbelievable game.”

Once again, Brady led his team from behind in the fourth quarter, the fifth time this season he has done so. The Bucs trailed 21-10 in the final frame.

Carolina had just 74 yards rushing, 99 yards fewer than in their first meeting. Sam Darnold threw for 341 yards.

"We wanted to make them beat us through the air," Bowles said. "We didn’t think they could beat us through the air, so we tried to take those two guys away [running backs Don’t’a Hightower and Chuba Hubbard] on the ground because we wanted to win time of possession. The last three out of four games that they won, they held the ball over 35 minutes. When they keep our offense off the field and keep their defense off the field, that doesn’t bode well.”

The Bucs, once again, looked lethargic early. They had a first-and-goal late in the first half, but dodgy play-calling made them settle for a field goal. In the third period, they drove from their own 2 to the Carolina 8, but had a field goal blocked.

However, the Bucs won the fourth quarter. Much of it was Brady and Evans. Some of it was a sack-fumble by Anthony Evans, his second in two weeks.

“It’s a new slate," Bowles said. "Playoffs start a clean slate for everybody. You’ve got a three-game elimination tournament and it doesn’t matter where you are. To have those games, to play tough like we did, at least we know we’ll be in the games. We just have to cut down the mistakes in order to win them.”

The Bucs finish their regular season with a game in Atlanta on Sunday against the Falcons.

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