NFC SOUTH CHAMPS, BABY!
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sailed into Charlotte and de-clawed the Carolina Panthers on 32-6 on Sunday on the way to their first NFC South division title in 14 years. It was a dominant performance that helped make that fluke shutout loss to the Saints last week, an afterthought for Bucs fans. This is probably the easiest “Good, Bad & Ugly” that I’ve had to write this season. EVERYTHING about this game was “good“. I literally had to make something up for the “bad” and “ugly” because I couldn’t really pick anything specific out from this game. It was a great day for all three phases, so here’s what I came up with from the Bucs vs Panthers matchup.
The Bounce Back
After being outplayed and outcoached in embarrassing fashion by the Saints at home last week, the Buccaneers went on the road and dominated the Panthers in every phase of this game. Last week, the Bucs offense had 302 total yards and ZERO points and was completely shut down and shut out by the Saints’ #11 ranked defense who had 4 sacks AND forced 2 turnovers. This week against the Panthers’ #2 ranked defense, they put up 391 total yards and 32 points, gave up ZERO sacks, AND had ZERO turnovers. And did I mention that they did it WITHOUT 57% of their offensive output in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, AND Leonard Fournette? It was just the kind of game this team needed, especially on offense, to get things back on track for a playoff run.
The Buccaneers defense did not give up a touchdown for the second game in a row. That’s the first time they’ve done that since the first two games of the 2003 season. They held Carolina to just 273 total yards and 6 points while allowing just 7 of 18 third-down conversions and 0 of 2 fourth-down conversions. They also had 7 sacks by six different players (Gholston 2.5, Barrett, Minter, Vea, Nelson, McClendon .5) in this game. That’s their highest single-game total since 2013 and matches the most in a game since 1999. It’s also their highest total in a game in three years under Todd Bowles. Shaq Barrett now has 10 sacks this season, making him just one of four players in team history to have multiple double-digit sack seasons: (Rice, Selmon, Sapp).
The Next Men Up
With a ton of guys out on offense due to injuries and COVID-19, a bunch of players was asked to step into major roles on Sunday, and a number of them performed well. With Mike Evans AND Chris Godwin out, Antonio Brown was forced into filling the #1 receiver role in his first game back since Week 6, and he rose to the occasion finishing this game with 10 catches on 14 targets for 101 yards. Cyril Grayson was activated and elevated from the practice squad to provide depth for this game at WR, and all he did was finish with 3 catches for 81 yards. Ke’Shawn Vaughn had a bigger role with Leonard Fournette out, and he filled in nicely, finishing with 7 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown.
They were missing quite a few guys on defense as well. With Jason Pierre-Paul out and Shaq Barrett leaving the game with a knee injury, Anthony Nelson played a bigger role and finished with a sack, his third of the year. Steve McClendon was elevated from the practice squad for depth on the interior d-line, with Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Pat O’Connor out, and he got to the QB for a shared sack as well. Lastly, Kevin Minter had a solid game in place of Lavonte David.
A division game, on the road, after a tough loss. It could’ve easily been another loss for the Bucs under those circumstances. Instead, they rallied as a team and pulled off a convincing win to wrap up the division title. It was just what this team and the fans needed after what happened against the Saints last week. Yes, the Bucs were expected to win this game, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the NFL, as we’ve seen quite often this season. Wins are always good. But when they’re on the road, against a division rival, AND help clinch a division title, they’re even better.
The Bucs came out of this game with another injury to another star player. Shaq Barrett left the game with a knee injury after landing on it; awkwardly. An MRI on Monday revealed that it appears to be a mild to moderate MCL and ACL sprain that could keep him out for the remainder of the regular season. Bruce Arians did say that there’s a good chance that he could be back for the playoffs, though. Other than that, they came out of this game relatively healthy.
The Next Men Down
Even though a lot of guys stepped up and performed well in this game, some needed to be better, and they just weren’t. In a game where Mike Evans AND Chris Godwin were out, Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller had zero catches between them. ZERO. In a game where the Bucs were hurting at wide receiver and needed help from their tight ends, they got a COMBINED 3 catches for 34 yards from Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate, and OJ Howard (who had no catches).
Where’s the damn Juggs Machine at One Buc? Drops have been plaguing this team all season, and this game was no different. Rob Gronkowski dropped what could’ve been another touchdown pass after dropping three passes last week. OJ Howard had another drop on his only target of the game. Ke’Shawn Vaughn had another drop on a routine pass. Cam Brate dropped another one. Are you seeing the pattern here? Like I said last week, dropping passes is about a lack of concentration and focus. I was always taught that if you can touch it, then you can catch it. I mean, it’s not that hard.
The Buccaneers took care of business. That’s the bottom line here. They needed to go on the road, against a division opponent, with a good defense, and prove that the shutout by the Saints last week was a fluke and forgotten about. Destroying the Panthers 32-6 in Charlotte should’ve done the job. Domination in every way. The offense was balanced with 30 pass attempts and 30 rush attempts. The defense was equally suffocating, allowing just 206 passing yards and 67 rushing yards. Ryan Succop matched his season-high going 4 for 4 on field goals, as well as 2 for 2 on extra points. With the 32 points, the Bucs are now 21-0 over the last two years when scoring 30+ points in a game.
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
The Bucs win locked up the NFC South title and secured their spot in the playoffs. Now it’s just a matter of where they finish in the seeding. Since the Cowboys and Rams both won on Sunday, that put the Bucs in a three-way tie at 11-4. However, they dropped from the #2 seed to the #4 seed because of the tiebreakers. But don’t worry, Bucs fans, there’s still hope for them to get back to that #2 seed. All they need is for the Rams to lose one of their two remaining games. Well, that and to win their last two as well. The Rams still have to go to Baltimore and then have the 49ers at home to finish the regular season, so there’s a good chance that they lose one of those games. If they do, and the Bucs beat the Jets and Panthers, then Tampa Bay will finish in that #2 seed regardless of what the Cowboys do in these last two weeks.
THE LOOK AHEAD
The Bucs travel to New York to take on the 4-11 Jets on Sunday. On paper, this is a “gimme game” for Tampa Bay. But as we’ve found out a couple of times this season, there’s no such thing for this team. The unexpected losses in Week 10 to Washington and Week 15 to the Saints should’ve proved that. Hopefully, the Bucs can turn this business trip to the “Big Apple” into their 12th win of the season. Something they haven’t done since their 2002 Super Bowl season.
Until then, as always, GO BUCS!!!