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Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes, and the Bucs beat the Panthers 41-17 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium to set a franchise record with 13 regular-season victories.
The Bucs (13-4) earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC and will host the Eagles (9-8) in the wild-card round of the playoffs next weekend in Tampa.
After yielding the first touchdown, the Bucs outscored the Panthers 41-10 the rest of the way. They scored late in the first half and early in the second to quickly turn a four-point deficit into a 10-point advantage.
Brady engineered an eight-play, 92-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter to put the Bucs ahead for the first time on Le’Veon Bell’s 1-yard reception. Ke’Shawn Vaughn added a 2-yard scoring run early in the third quarter.
Besides Bell, Brady threw scoring passes of 3 and 20 yards to Mike Evans, who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the eighth straight season since entering the league in 2014.
Evans’ second TD reception, his 14th of the season, broke his own franchise single-season record.
Brady completed 29 of 37 passes for 326 yards and the three scores before being replaced by Blaine Gabbert with just over five minutes remaining. Brady’s nine 300-yard passing games are most among NFL quarterbacks this season.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski was Brady’s favorite target, catching seven of 10 targets for 137 yards.
Scotty Miller, who seldom played this season, got into the end zone for the first time on a 33-yard run around right end in the fourth quarter, just his second touch of the game. He wound up being the Bucs’ leading rusher with 43 yards on two carries.
Ryan Succop added field goals of 40 and 39 yards. He missed from 46 after slipping on the grass.
Rakeem Nunez-Roches forced a fumble that was recovered by Antoine Winfield Jr., and Andrew Adams intercepted a pass to lead the Bucs’ defense.
Wide receiver Cyril Grayson, the hero of last week’s come-from-behind victory over the Jets, left in the first half with a hamstring injury. Cornerback Jamel Dean also sustained a hamstring injury.
Here’s how it happened:
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As they did from the start, the Panthers continued to gamble on fourth down, mostly to successful results.
Down two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, Carolina moved to the Tampa Bay 19 yard-line before the drive stalled. But knowing their offensive chances were limited, the Panthers tried for a first own on fourth and 4.
Despite being held by cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carolina receiver Robby Anderson made an over-the-shoulder catch to pull the Panthers back to within 24-17 with just under 11 minutes remaining.
Dinked and dunked to death
The Bucs took the long route down the field during a touchdown drive that stretched from late in the third quarter into the early part of the fourth.
Only one play — a 14-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski — was longer than 10 yards as Tampa Bay used 11 plays to drive 62 yards.
Mike Evans’ 3-yard touchdown reception from Tom Brady — the 75th scoring catch of Evans’ career — put the Bucs ahead 24-10 four seconds into the fourth quarter.
Brady threw a 10-yard pass to Evans to start the drive. In addition to Gronkowski,, Breshad Perriman, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Tyler Johnson also touched the ball on the drive.
Can’t touch this
Mike Evans extended his own record to eight straight seasons of 1,000 receiving yards to start a career with an early third-quarter reception.
Evans stayed down on the field after the catch with what appeared to be a hand or wrist injury before leaving the field under his own power.
Before most fans had returned from the concession stands, the Bucs were back in the end zone again.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s 2-yard run up the middle just over three minutes into the third quarter extended Tampa Bay’s lead to 17-7.
The Bucs drove 77 yards on seven plays, most of the damage coming on two Rob Gronkowski receptions.
One play after Gronkowski took a Tom Brady pass over the middle 42 yards to the Panthers 34, Gronk gained 19 yards to the 15.
After outplaying the Bucs for much of the first half, the Panthers suddenly found themselves down two scores.
Brady sets two franchise records
Tom Brady set two franchise single-season records on the eight-play, 92-yard touchdown drive that gave his team a 10-7 halftime lead.
His 1-yard scoring strike to Le’Veon Bell with 15 seconds to play was his 41st of the season, breaking his own franchise mark established in 2020.
Two plays before, his 24-yard connection to Breshad Perriman on the right sideline gave him the team’s single-season passing yardage record.
Read Joey Knight’s full story here.
Short-handed? Nah, sure-handed
After losing Chris Godwin for the season to a torn ACL, releasing Antonio Brown and then seeing Cyril Grayson leave in the first half with a hamstring injury, there was a perception that the Bucs were short of pass-catchers.
Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski and Breshad Perriman made big receptions to move the ball down the field during a late first-half scoring drive, and recently signed running back Le’Veon Bell got the Bucs into the end zone.
Bell’s 1-yard reception from Tom Brady gave Tampa Bay its first lead of the game at 10-7.
Evans got the drive started with a 37-yard catch and run to the Tampa Bay 45. Gronkowski caught passes of 7 and 20 yards, and Perriman fully extended for a catch down the right sideline to give the Bucs a first down at the 4.
Brady completed 5 of 7 passes on the drive for 89 yards.
The Panthers apparently learned nothing from the Jets, as they tried a quarterback sneak straight into the heart of the Bucs defense on fourth-and-short from deep in Tampa Bay territory late in the second quarter, resulting in a turnover on downs.
New York suffered the same fate late in last week’s 28-24 loss to Tampa Bay, setting the stage for the Bucs’ winning touchdown drive.
In this case, defensive lineman Steve McLendon stuffed Sam Darnold for no gain. The Panthers challenged the call on the field, but it was upheld.
Carolina had driven from its 25-yard line to the Tampa Bay 2 largely on the legs of running backs Chuba Hubbard and Amir Abdullah.
Hubbard rushed twice for 26 yards, including a 19-yard gain to the Bucs 38. Abdullah caught two passes for 27 yards and carried three times for 10 yards.
Turnabout is fair play
Panthers defensive back Myles Hartsfield was celebrating, throwing a closed fist in the air to signal fourth down, after tackling Bucs receiver Tyler Johnson 2 yards shot of a first down at the Carolina 42 on Tampa Bay’s second possession.
But as the Panthers did twice on their previous drive, the Bucs’ kept their offense on the field.
Tom Brady competed a 14-yard pass to Mike Evans, giving Tampa Bay a first down at the 28.
The Panthers managed to force a second fourth down three plays later, and the Bucs had to settle for Ryan Succop’s 39-yard field goal and a 7-3 deficit.
Bucs receiver Cyril Grayson injured his hamstring during the drive and was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game.
Panthers aggressive early
Leading by a touchdown and facing fourth and 1 from their 34 on their second possession, the Panthers opted to try for the first down.
The gamble paid off as DJ Moore picked up 13 yards on a run around right end to the 47.
But the victory was short-lived.
Six plays later, Carolina found itself facing fourth and 6 after Anthony Nelson stopped C.J. Saunders following a 3-yard reception.
The Panthers again went for the first down, but Sam Darnold’s pass deep down the left sideline for Moore was broken up by cornerback Carlton Davis, giving Tampa Bay possession.
Bucs start three and out
The Bucs came up empty on their first possession, failing to pick up a first down before punting the ball back to the Panthers.
Tom Brady was sacked by defensive back Myles Hartsfield on his first dropback, then threw incomplete deep over the middle while looking for tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Brady’s 5-yard completion to Tyler Johnson on third and 12 was 7 yards short of the sticks, forcing a Bradley Pinion punt.
Panthers strike first
The Panthers drove 75 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession, culminating with Sam Darnold’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Chuba Hubbard.
Darnold completed 6 of 8 passes on the drive for 49 yards.
The Panthers converted three third downs, on a 20-yard pass from Darnold to DJ Moore, a neutral zone infraction called against Vita Vea and a 7-yard pass to Robby Anderson.
Returning the focus to the field
At last — mercifully — game day is here.
After a week of “he said, they said” following Antonio Brown’s abrupt exit from last week’s victory over the Jets and subsequent release, the Bucs close out the regular season today against the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.
Brown’s departure during a late third-quarter scoring drive overshadowed Tampa Bay’s comeback from a 14-point, second-half deficit to beat New York, 28-24, a victory that gives today’s game considerably more meaning.
If the Bucs beat the Panthers and the Rams lose to the 49ers, the Bucs will move up to the No. 2 seed in the NFC and earn the right to host a second playoff game. Tampa Bay could remain at No. 3 or fall to No. 4 (if Bucs, Rams and Cardinals all lose) depending on various other scenarios.
A win also would give the Bucs (12-4) a franchise-best 13 regular-season victories.
With Brown released and Chris Godwin out for the season with a torn ACL, the Bucs will have to rely more on Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson and Breshad Perriman in the passing game. Fortunately, they have been up to the task when called upon: Grayson and Johnson accounted for all of the yards during the final drive against the Jets, and Perriman scored the winning touchdown in an overtime victory over the Bills.
With Leonard Fournette (hamstring) on injured reserve and Ronald Jones (ankle) and Giovani Bernard (hip, knee) also out, the Bucs will turn to second-year back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, recently signed Le’Veon Bell and practice-squad veteran Kenjon Barner to run the ball.
But then, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in the lineup with quarterback Tom Brady continuing to play at an MVP-caliber level.
Plus, he will have receiver Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski available and playing with significant incentives. Evans needs 54 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for an eighth straight season since entering the league in 2014. Gronkowski needs seven catches and 85 receiving yards to earn a $1 million incentive.
Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who missed last week’s game with a knee injury, on Friday was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder), cornerback Rashard Robinson (groin) and backup receiver Justin Watson (quad) also are out.
Kyle Trask inactive again
Bucs rookie quarterback Kyle Trask, hardly a stranger to biding his time, completed the second redshirt season of his life Sunday afternoon.
For the 17th time in as many games, the former record-setting Gator was deemed inactive before kickoff.
As a result, Trask, who redshirted at UF in 2016 and didn’t log any game action the following year, remained confined to the sideline for the third time in the last six seasons.
Read Joey Knight’s full story here.
Who’s in/who’s out
Game day scene
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A read on the game
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