SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It's debate season, and the locker room could become divided over the Bucs' magical passing combination of quarterback Jameis Winston and receiver Mike Evans. Over and over, with each touchdown, one question has to be asked: better throw or better catch?
One thing everyone seemed to agree on Sunday — call it a consensus of consciousness: The Bucs' pair extraordinaire took over the game in the 34-17 win over the 49ers. And considering their ages — Evans is 23, Winston 22 — it won't be long before these millennials take over the NFC South and perhaps the league.
Winston passed for three touchdowns — two to Evans — and the Bucs rallied from a 14-0 deficit, using three 49ers turnovers to help score 27 unanswered points and win their second straight game to improve to 3-3.
Playing without injured running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson, who was placed on injured reserve last week with an ACL injury, the Bucs were explosive once they got into a rhythm against a 49ers defense that entered the game ranked last in the league against the run.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 154 yards, the second straight game he topped the century mark. But it was the combination of Winston-to-Evans that stole the show.
"You're seeing the best quarterback, probably, and the best receiver in franchise history developing," said receiver Russell Shepard. "It's something special. They're putting something together. When those two guys are jelling, we're a dangerous team to go against."
Tackle Demar Dotson was even more effusive in his prediction.
"It's two young guys that are going to tear this league up for a long time," he said.
Winston passed for 269 yards and the three scores (with one interception), and Evans had eight catches for 96 yards and the two touchdowns, giving him six touchdowns in the first six games of the season, a team record. More impressively, all eight of Evans' catches resulted in either first downs or touchdowns.
"It feels good. That's the money zone, man," Evans said. "I love getting in the end zone and giving my team an opportunity to win."
Evans was hit in the stomach and had to leave the game after Winston was intercepted in the first quarter. But he knew it was gut-check time when the mistake led to a 14-0 deficit.
Despite drawing double coverage most of the game, Evans found a way to get open all day, especially whenever Winston felt pressure.
Winston bought some time rolling to his left before firing across his body to hit Evans for a 4-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 14-7. But it was the second touchdown to Evans that demonstrated the kind of synergy Winston has developed with his third-year receiver.
Eluding a heavy rush, Winston scrambled to his left and spotted Evans, who had been nearly knocked to the ground by a linebacker. Evans went toward the back of the end zone and pointed to the sky as Winston backed up and threw the ball with his right foot off the ground.
Somehow Winston and Evans knew what the other was doing as the play progressed, a silent communication honed through hours and hours of extra practice time.
"I got kind of hit by a linebacker, and I was slowed up," Evans said. "(Winston) did a great job scrambling, and I just threw my hand up, and he put it to where only I could get it. We've been working on stuff like that all year."
The 5-yard touchdown extended the Bucs' lead to 27-14 in the third quarter, creating a little breathing room.
"It's a basic thing that (quarterbacks) Coach (Mike) Bajakian says: 'Throw a tall guy a tall ball,' " Winston said of the 6-foot-5 Evans. "(Evans) has some basketball background, so any time you get a chance to throw him an alley-oop, he's going to take advantage of that."
Evans and Winston have worked hard to get where they are. If Evans played in a bigger market — say New York or New England — he already would be considered a superstar. The drops that plagued him last season are gone, and he and Winston are in the best shape of their careers.
"I thought Mike Evans was huge (Sunday) coming back for the ball, catching the ball at the highest point, going for the ball in the air," coach Dirk Koetter said. "I think Mike has just really improved his work habits in practice. For Mike, it's like he's on a mission out there."
And there's a lot of time before the Pro Bowl votes are counted.