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Bucs ride the back of Mike Evans to tight win over Carolina Panthers

One play after Carolina takes the lead, Evans strikes for a 75-yard touchdown reception from Baker Mayfield.
 
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) dives for the end zone to complete a 75-yard touchdown catch and run in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) dives for the end zone to complete a 75-yard touchdown catch and run in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2023|Updated Dec. 4, 2023

TAMPA — The Bucs needed a hero, and their Superman saved the day. Trailing the Carolina Panthers late in the third quarter Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Mike Evans caught a pass that that traveled 19 yards in the air and raced with it to the end zone.

When he got to the 4-yard line, the receiver flew up, up and away until he extended the football over the inside of the pylon to complete a 75-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs a lead they never relinquished in a 21-18 win over the Panthers.

Officials initially ruled that Evans had gone out of bounds just before the end zone, but replays showed he had scored his 10th touchdown of the season.

“I felt like I had (scored) — unless I stepped out — I knew I crossed the ball over the plane,” Evans said. “I had a similar play last year against Atlanta early in the year where I did the exact same thing and they didn’t give me a touchdown. So, I’m glad they gave it me this time.”

When the score was announced, Evans walked up to the side judge. “I said, ‘It’s a touchdown, baby!”

Evans finished with seven catches for 162 yards, and the touchdown may not even have been the most significant play he made. His 11-yard catch with 5:02 remaining put Evans over the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the 10th consecutive season to start his career, extending his NFL record.

“Happy we got the win, most importantly,” he said. “I’m happy with the record, obviously. I had a lot of great quarterbacks and offensive coordinators that believed in me, so I really appreciate them. Hopefully, I can keep that streak going, however long my career goes.”

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) makes a reception during the first quarter.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) makes a reception during the first quarter. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

There’s never been a more productive player on offense for the Bucs than Evans. At 30, he shows no signs of slowing down, and if anything he’s added the element of yards after the catch. Well, first there was YAC and then he, well, yakked.

“I was tired. I came to the sideline,” Evans said. “I had to throw up a little bit. So, I earned that one.”

Bucs fans had every reason to feel a little queasy before Evans’ touchdown. One play earlier, the Panthers took a 10-7 lead on Chuba Hubbard’s 1-yard touchdown run.

But instead of losing to the worst team in the NFL (1-11), the Bucs (5-7) can take over first place in the NFC South next Sunday with a win at Atlanta (6-6).

“We talked about it (Saturday),” head coach Todd Bowles said he told his team in the locker room. “Eight days, we could be in first place.”

No player stood taller than Evans. He accounted for all but 40 of Baker Mayfield’s 202 passing yards, including a 40-yard reception in the first half.

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“He’s a special player, obviously,” Mayfield said. “Hat’s off to him. He’s been so consistent for so long, and that play is just an example of how special he is. Just the run after the catch, the ability to be exactly where he’s supposed to be on that route and then make a huge play after that. ... We needed a little spark, and he was the guy to bring it to us.”

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates following his 75-yard touchdown reception.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates following his 75-yard touchdown reception. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Evans says he feels fortunate to still be making game-changing plays. “It’s what you want as a kid. It’s what you dream about,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed about this. I’ve always been a huge fan of sports, and I always said one day I was going to be one of those guys. There’s plenty of them, but I’m happy I’m one of them.

“It seems surreal at times, but I’m in the moment. Maybe when I’m long gone from the game, I’ll look back and really think about what I’ve done.”

What he’s accomplished is put together a career that’s Hall of Fame-worthy. He said as much Sunday.

“That’s not for me to decide,” Evans said. “I know I’m a Hall of Fame-caliber player. I’ve seen all those guys that played. I saw all those guys that are in the Hall of Fame. I know what I can do, but my career is not over yet. So, that’s something to think about in the future.”

Evans, who gave the Bucs a Sept. 9 deadline to reach a contract extension, will be a free agent after the season. It’s pretty apparent not re-signing him was a mistake.

Bowles was out of superlatives to describe Evans.

“I don’t know what more you can say,” Bowles said. “He’s been like this for 10 years now. Over 60 catches 10 years in a row, over 1,000 yards 10 years in a row. You know he’s getting the ball and everybody’s trying to stop him, and he makes plays over and over. It’s a credit to him, his work ethic, the way he approaches the game. Unbelievable.”

Evans really stepped up his offseason training and nutrition about the time Tom Brady arrived in 2020. He’s leaned out and actually gotten faster, clocked at 21 mph during the loss to Indianapolis a week ago. He’s not sure how much longer he will play.

Will it be in Tampa Bay?

“I don’t know,” he said. “When that moment comes, it will come. But right now, I’m just focused on getting this team to the playoffs.”

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