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For the first time since 2007 season, the Bucs are division champs.
Sunday’s 32-6 win at Carolina finally clinched the NFC South title for Tampa Bay, which missed out a week ago in a shutout loss to the defending division champ Saints. As a wild card last season, the Bucs played three straight playoff road games before claiming the Super Bowl 55 crown at Raymond James Stadium.
Sunday’s victory saw solid play on both sides of the ball. Antonio Brown surpassed 100 yards receiving in his return from a three-game suspension, quarterback Tom Brady (18-of-30, 232 yards, one touchdown) wasn’t flashy but had zero turnovers, and Tampa Bay’s offensive line did not give up a sack.
Bucs defenders, meanwhile, were a menace to opposing quarterbacks Cam Newton and Sam Darnold. They finished with seven sacks, including 2.5 from William Gholston.
And he’s off
Cover your eyes, Bruce Arians. Tom “Dual Threat” Brady is running again.
And getting a first down in the process.
Brady scrambled 11 yards to the Carolina 33, then three plays later Ronald Jones punched it in from 7 yards out — his first touchdown of the day — to give the Bucs a 29-6 lead over the Panthers with 2:08 to play in the third quarter.
The Bucs added another Ryan Succop field goal — this one from 48 yards, tying his longest of the season ― with 8:04 to play in the fourth quarter.
Tom Brady spread the love — and the ball — on the Bucs’ first drive of the third quarter. But Tampa Bay couldn’t punch it in from Carolina 3-yard line, settling for another Ryan Succop field (21 yards), his third of the game.
Five Bucs players got in on the action — including Rob Gronkowski for his first catch of the day, a 23-yard reception ― but Gronkowski also couldn’t reel in Brady’s final dart on the nine-play drive.
8:39 left in the third quarter: Bucs 22, Panthers 6.
The Bucs also lost Shaquil Barrett (knee), who was injured toward the end of the first half before playing briefly in the third quarter, for the remainder of the game.
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Even without Barrett, the Bucs’ sack attack continued, with takedowns of Cam Newton by Anthony Nelson and Vita Vea in the quarter.
Think Tom Brady missed Antonio Brown?
In the first half at Carolina, Brady connected with Brown — playing his first game since Oct. 14 — seven times for 67 yards to lead all receivers. Brown was targeted nine times.
But the offensive highlights came courtesy of Ke’Shawn Vaughn (55-yard first-quarter touchdown) and Cyril Grayson (62-yard reception late in the second quarter). The latter helped set up Cameron Brate’s eventual 4-yard TD catch with 1:22 left in the half.
Ronald Jones also played more of a dual role, with 11 carries for 38 rushing yards, and two catches for another 16.
Brady, who finished the first half 12-of-18 for 156 yards, tied Vinny Testaverded with 77 touchdown passes for No. 3 on the Bucs’ all-time list.
Tampa Bay led 19-6 at halftime.
Bucs extend first-half lead
Tom Brady and Co. took advantage of Jordan Whitehead’s interception, picking up three more points early in the second quarter.
Antonio Brown and Ronald Jones featured heavily on the drive, which ended with Ryan Succop’s 36-yard field goal. Brady threw two straight completions to Brown for a combined 26 yards, then handed off to Jones four straight times.
10:58 left in the second quarter: Bucs 10, Panthers 3.
Quarterback Sam Darnold (briefly) entered for Carolina on the next series and promptly completed a 63-yard pass to a wide-open Shi Smith. Thanks to the busted coverage, the Panthers had the ball at the Tampa Bay 10.
But Cam Newton re-entered the game, the Bucs defense stiffened up — with Shaquil Barrett notching his 10th sack of the year — in the red zone and Carolina was limited to a 29-yard field goal by Lirim Hajrullahu.
7:21 left in the second quarter: Bucs 10, Panthers 6.
After a third-down pass sailed on Brady, stalling a promising drive at the Carolina 25, Succop connected for another field goal, this one from 43 yards.
2:44 left in the second quarter: Bucs 13, Panthers 6.
Vaughn steps up
Well, the Bucs won’t get shut out this week.
And they have Ke’Shawn Vaughn to thank.
With do-everything back Leonard Fournette sidelined by injury, Vaughn reeled off a career-best 55-yard run for his first NFL rushing touchdown with 4:13 left in the first quarter. Vaughn, drafted in the third round last year out of Vanderbilt, had 50 yards rushing total entering the game.
On the ensuing Panthers series, Jordan Whitehead intercepted Cam Newton on third and 4, putting the Bucs back on offense from their own 49 with less than two minutes remaining in the opening quarter.
Panthers 3, Bucs 0
Add the Bucs to the list of teams unable to score on the opening drive against the Panthers this season.
After falling 9-0 to the Saints in their last outing, the Bucs were hoping to strike immediately in Carolina. Tampa Bay is expected to use a heavy dose of running back Ronald Jones and receiver Antonio Brown today with so many playmakers out on offense.
Tom Brady targeted Brown twice on the opening drive, while Jones carried three times. Despite a few modest gains, the drive stalled at the Tampa Bay 41.
Armwood High alum Sterling Hofrichter, starting in place of Bradley Pinion (hip), saw his first punt as a Buc go 45 yards.
Despite starting their first drive at their own 30, the Panthers drew first blood, thanks largely to the legs of quarterback Cam Newton. A 33-yard run by Newton set up Carolina on the Tampa Bay 11. five plays later, the Panthers scored on a 24-yard field goal from Lirim Hajrullahu.
7:21 left in the first quarter: Panthers 3, Bucs 0.
The Bucs have another shot at clinching the NFC South today at Carolina, though they’ll have a few stars missing throughout the lineup. Good news? They also can clinch without winning if the Saints lose, or with a little help from teams like the Vikings, Eagles and Cowboys.
But Tampa Bay’s litany of injuries remain a concern.
On Saturday, the team announced that linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, whose production is down after trying to play for weeks with a torn rotator cuff, is out today. The Bucs already are without receiver Chris Godwin (ACL), Mike Evans (hamstring), Lavonte David (foot), safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (foot) and running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring).
On Thursday, the Bucs placed wide receiver/kick returner Jaelon Darden and defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
But as usual, even with some of his top targets on offense out, quarterback Tom Brady was unflappable in practices leading up to today’s game.
“He’s looked fine,” coach Bruce Arians said during the week. “I mean, Tom is Tom. He’s going to find as many guys and get the right guys. The guys worked hard this week, so he’s got a lot of confidence in all of them.”
Brady needs one touchdown pass to tie Vinny Testaverde (77) for third most in franchise history.
And he will have receiver Antonio Brown — coming back from a heel/ankle injury as well as a three-game suspension, along with safety Mike Edwards, for misrepresenting his COVID-19 status — to throw to.
Keep an eye on the punter. Bradley Pinion (hip) has had his issues in recent weeks, and Armwood High alum Sterling Hofrichter will start today.
Game day scene
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