ATLANTA — He leads the team in receiving and he leads the NFL in touchdown catches.
But Chris Godwin doesn’t even get top billing when it comes to the Bucs’ best targets. He’s the No. 2 behind Mike Evans, who has done it longer, better and more consistently to start his career than anyone this side of Randy Moss.
But while Evans began the Bucs’ 35-22 win over the Falcons Sunday by rounding off a route and watching Desmond Trufant intercept Jameis Winston’s first pass then dropping a screen pass, Godwin was busy winning the game.
For one game, and who knows, maybe one season, Godwin was the best player in throw business.
It’s not that Godwin set a career mark with seven catches on eight targets Sunday for 184 yards. Or that his two touchdowns changed the complexion of the game and gave him nine for the season, the most in the NFL.
It’s that on a day where Evans made history, joining Moss as the only player to reach 1,000-yards receiving for six straight years to start his career, Godwin was better than his teammate, Julio Jones or Matt Ryan.
In fact, Falcons coach Dan Quinn, whose defense had held the Saints and Panthers without a touchdown in the previous two weeks, was prescient when he talked about Godwin before the game.
“Chris Godwin is somebody where you see people and players make transitions from where he was in ’17, into ’18 and into ’19,’’ Quinn said. “That for sure, from an individual standpoint, I thought, “Man, look at the growth of this player."
How a player lifts those around him who are struggling is the hallmark of a great player. Godwin did just that Sunday.
The Bucs had fallen into a 3-0 hole, another early turnover by Winston setting the tone.
But that’s when Godwin ran a seam route behind Falcons linebacker Deion Jones and slipped in front of safety Damontae Kazee to grab a pass just across midfield from Winston, bracing for the inevitable collision.
“He made a really good throw around the linebacker and I was just trying to find it," Godwin said. "Once I did, you know, I was expecting a hit and it came. I bounced off and then I got my bearings and said, “Alright, let’s go score.’’
Godwin did just that, racing to the end zone for a 71-yard touchdown, the longest of Winston’s career.
Another Winston interception, this one on a ridiculous jump pass that was behind running back Dare Ogunbowale and tipped into the air, led to a Falcons touchdown and surrendered the lead. But Godwin led the Bucs back again.
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First, he snagged a 22-yard pass near the right sideline. Then he laid out and made a diving grab of a 30-yarder to the Atlanta 10.
Two plays later, on third-and-goal from the Falcons 1, Godwin ran to the right side of the end zone and was blanketed by cornerback Kendall Sheffield. The pass was behind Godwin, who spun around and stabbed the pass with his right hand, pulling it into his body for a touchdown as he was blasted by Sheffield.
“I’m just thinking let me try to get a hand on it and see what I can do," Godwin said. "It worked out.’’
That play gave the Bucs a 13-10 lead they never surrendered. The defense made it hold up by sacking Ryan six times, intercepting him once and forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Ndamukong Suh.
For his part, Evans went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark with a 17-yard catch in the second quarter.
“It means a lot. I put in a lot of hard work,’’ Evans said. “I wasn’t easy. I do get a lot of opportunities but I’ve been putting in the hard work and I have some great quarterbacks I’ve played with and some great teammates.
“My favorite player was Peyton Manning, but (Moss) was my favorite receiver. He was such a freak of nature and he was so exciting to watch. And to be in the same sentence as him is amazing.’’
Godwin feels the same way about Evans.
“I always say this: Mike is my guy,’’ Evans said. “And I’m blessed to be playing with him and learn from him and he’s like a running mate for me. It’s really an honor to be here and be a pro and be able to learn from a guy like Mike who’s so humble and he’s such a beast. It’s really an honor of mine.’’
How Godwin was overlooked from Penn State until the third round is anyone’s guess. But consider this: after 2020, he is a free agent. Evans has four years left on a five-year, $82.5-million contract.
It’s unlikely the Bucs can keep both. Enjoy this while you can.
Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud