ATLANTA ― By chance or by choice, Chris Godwin was one very exhausted man following Sunday’s game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Tom Brady came out slinging it, calling 13 straight pass plays to begin the Bucs’ game against the Atlanta Falcons. Five of his 11 completions on the drive were to Godwin, who ricocheted off three or four tacklers every time he touched the football.
By the time Bucs’ 30-17 win over the Falcons ended, Godwin had a club record 15 receptions ― the most by any player in the NFL this year ― for 143 yards.
His other bruise brother, tight end Rob Gronkowski, caught two of Brady’s four touchdown passes.
“I really had no idea until we walked off the field,” Godwin said of the record, which had been 13 by running backs Earnest Graham and James Wilder. “And I thought it was around, like, 10 or so. I think some of those little quick hitters you kind of forget about, getting bounced around out there like a little pinball.”
Godwin is a lot like the Bucs at this point in the season. He’s wearing down opponents, unselfishly doing whatever is necessary to help build what is now a 9-3 record and four-game lead in the NFC South.
The previous two games, the Bucs had leaned heavily on running back Leonard Fournette. But they felt so confident their offensive line wouldn’t let the Falcons lay a glove on Brady that he threw it 51 times Sunday, completing 38 for 368 yards with four touchdowns, no sacks and one incredibly gifted interception.
With only one timeout and 22 seconds remaining in the first half at their own 8-yard line, Brady threw a screen pass to Fournette that was intercepted and returned 3 yards for a touchdown by Falcons defensive end Marlon Davidson.
“The defensive lineman caught it,” Brady said of his only blemish, which cut the Bucs’ lead to 20-17. “We had a screen called, I saw Leonard and it got in a good place. Give them credit.”
Give credit, also, to the Bucs defense. After allowing the Falcons to uncharacteristically rush for 101 yards in the first half, they pitched a shutout after halftime. Tampa Bay sacked Matt Ryan five times, including two each by Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea.
Three games ago, Brady was hit so hard by Washington’s Jonathan Allen that he went into check-down mode in a 29-19 loss at FedExField.
But the Bucs were confident they could protect Brady on Sunday, and he started launching from the first snap of the game.
Godwin, 25, is the Bucs’ franchise player who is certainly making a case for an enormous contract extension in 2022. He’s well on his way to obliterating the team record for receptions (106) set by Keyshawn Johnson in 2001.
Godwin already has 82 receptions for 949 yards and five touchdowns. What’s more, he typically plays in the slot and is physical enough to move defensive ends and linebackers as a key blocker in the run game.
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“Some of those guys are strong,” Godwin said. “They bang you around a little bit. I take a lot of pride in playing the way that I do. There’s not many guys that commit to the run the way I do but are also effective in the pass game. I’m going to keep being me.”
But when you’re being pinballed, you don’t have time to be enamored by the flashy numbers.
Take the first drive. Godwin caught a pass in traffic over the middle for 5 yards. Then he grabbed a tunnel screen to the right for 11 yards. Then it was to the left for 6. To the right for 7. Then left again for 4. That set up Brady’s 3-yard fade to Fournette in the end zone.
“Honestly, I had no idea,” Godwin said of his early workload. “I didn’t know there was five of them (on the first drive). It felt like a lot. But it’s cool. That’s dope to be able to set a record, especially with a guy like Mike (Evans), who’s been dominating here for so long, you know what I mean? I think the biggest thing was getting a dub (win).”
One more Sunday win against the Bills at Raymond James Stadium — coupled with a Jets win over the Saints and a Falcons win over the Panthers — would give the Bucs their first NFC South crown since the George W. Bush administration. Godwin was 11 when the Bucs hosted their last playoff game in 2007.
“To be honest with you, I’m not calm at all,” Suh said. “Yes, we understood we wanted to come on the road. This was a very, very big game not only for our division, but to make sure we got Atlanta to the seventh loss. We’ve got to push our gas pedal. ... We can’t be calm by any means. We’ve got a lot of football left.”
Hopefully, Godwin will be able to recharge by next Sunday. After the game, Gronkowski said Godwin deserves a veteran’s day off, even if he probably isn’t old enough.
“I think if Gronk says it, I think it might have a little more pull for me,” Godwin said.
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