The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrapped up the regular season with a HUGE 41-17 victory over their NFC South rivals, the Carolina Panthers, in front of a rowdy Raymond James Stadium Sunday afternoon. The win was their 13th of the season, which is a franchise record, and it propelled them into the #2 seed for the playoffs with a little help from the Rams’ loss to the 49ers in overtime. We can talk about the playoff scenario later. Right now, I want to talk about the “Good, Bad & Ugly” that I saw from this game against the Panthers. So here it goes.
Ah sweet, sweet victory. Wins are good. Division wins are great. Wins that guarantee you two home playoff games are awesome. And when you get 13 of them in one season, it’s record-breaking. This win gave Bruce Arians 31 wins in his three seasons in Tampa Bay. That ties a franchise record for the most wins in any three-year span. It also broke the record for wins by a single coach in team history (Tony Dungy 99-01).
It was a rough start. If you’re like me, you weren’t real happy with the team for the first 29 minutes of this football game. I know I was pretty pissed off myself. In fact, I even tweeted out that “This Buccaneers team is so frustrating to watch” at some point in the second quarter. But this team got their heads on straight and pulled away with the 41-17 blowout victory that we were all expecting. Even with all the injuries, this team is so talented and experienced that it’s hard to watch them struggle to move the ball or score on offense, or struggle to get off the field on defense. Slow starts have been a problem all season, but this team almost always finds a way to win games.
The Turning Point
With:43 seconds left in the first half, the Bucs were driving in an attempt to score before halftime. They had 1st &10 from the Panthers 28-yard line. Brady dropped back and threw a laser to Breshad Perriman on the right sideline, who made an amazing acrobatic, toe drag-swag type catch that had to be reviewed by the booth officials. It resulted in a 24-yard play down to the Panthers’ 4-yard line, and the Bucs scored two plays later on a short pass to Le’Veon Bell to take a 10-7 lead into halftime. The Bucs came out of the half with a 7 play/77-yard drive to score another touchdown, took a 17-7 lead, and never looked back. I really do think that it was a turning point in this game, and it showed that the Bucs still have receivers that can step up and make plays, even without Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown.
The 2nd Half Offense
After an abysmal first quarter, the offense got into a rhythm and started to click in the second quarter. They had 48 total yards of offense with 3:32 left in the first half, then outscored the Panthers 41-10 and outgained them 407 to 206 in the final three quarters. With just three plays for 3 yards in the first, they finished this game with 409 total yards, including 324 passing and 85 rushing, and averaged 6.8 yards per play. They scored 30+ points for the seventh time in eight games at home this season and have never lost a game with Tom Brady at quarterback when scoring 28+ points.
Tom Brady just keeps doing Tom Brady shit. Every week, it seems like some franchise or NFL record is being broken or set by this guy. Sunday was no different. He finished this game completing passes to nine different receivers, going 29 of 37 for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns, and most importantly: NO INTERCEPTIONS. His 130.4 QB rating Sunday was his second-highest in any game this season. He has now completed 67.5% of his passes for a career-high 5,316 yards (he had 5,235 yards in 2011) with 43 touchdowns (new franchise record-breaking the 40 he set last season) and 12 interceptions along with 2 rushing touchdowns. It’s the third-highest number of passing yards in a season in NFL history (trailing only Peyton Manning’s 5,477 yards in 2013 and Drew Brees‘ 5,476 yards in 2011), and he now has two of the top five best passing seasons in NFL history. He’s also joined Drew Brees as the ONLY two players in NFL history to have multiple 5,000-yard seasons. At 44 years old, he threw for 1,201 MORE yards than Aaron Rodgers AND led his team to the same 13-4 record while leading the league in completions, yards, AND touchdowns. Unbelievable. If he doesn’t win MVP, it will be a travesty.
With the Bucs shorthanded at wide receiver for various reasons, they needed someone from that group to step up, and Miller answered the call. He only had 1 catch for 9 yards, but he was the team’s leading rusher in this game with 2 carries for 43 yards and a touchdown. After this performance, I would expect him to start playing a bigger role in this offense, especially if Cyril Grayson ends up missing time with his injury.
For the second game in a row, the Bucs needed someone to step up as an edge rusher to replace Shaq Barrett, and Jason Pierre-Paul and Nelson rose to the occasion. And for the second game in a row, he finished with 3 tackles and a sack. The Bucs have 3 sacks in these last two games without Shaq and JPP, and Nelson has two of them. He now has 5 sacks this season, which is third-most on the team behind Barrett (10) and Suh (6).
We’ve already talked about Brady’s records, but he couldn’t have done it without a little help. With the receiving corps dwindling down with each passing week, the Bucs needed their stars to play like stars in this game. Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski did just that. Evans finished with 6 catches for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Gronk finished with 7 catches for 137 yards. No “tuddies” again, but it was his highest total as a Buc and the highest period since 2017. After disappearing from the offense for a couple of weeks, he has had 252 yards in the last two games, the fourth-best two-game stretch of his career. Not only did he set a new NFL record for most 100-yard games by a tight end in NFL history, but he also earned himself a cool $1 million in incentive bonuses for hitting 750+ yards and getting 55 catches.
Take that, AB.
Evans had himself a day as well. His 89 yards and 2 touchdowns gave him 1,035 yards and 14 touchdowns for the season. The 14 TD’s is the most TD catches in a single season in Buccaneers history, and he now has the top four highest totals in franchise history – 13 last year and 12 in 2014 and 2016. The 1,035 yards is his 8th straight season with 1,000+ yards. Not only is it the most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin a career (nobody else has more than six), but it’s also tied for the third-longest streak by ANY player at ANY point in their career. That list consists of Jerry Rice (HOF) with 11, Tim Brown (HOF) with 9 and Cris Carter (HOF), Marvin Harrison (HOF), and Torry Holt with 8 each. Take that, AB.
The Mental Toughness
After what happened during the game last week, then how they finished and what’s happened during this week, then how they responded, I must say that I’m impressed with the mental toughness of this team. The whole Antonio Brown soap opera could’ve been a major distraction for them and probably would’ve caused most teams to lose focus and possibly even lose games. Not this team. They fought back from a 24-10 deficit last week and won. And they rebounded from a terrible first quarter in this game and ended up routing the Panthers in a 41-17 blowout this week. They have fought through tons of injuries, the COVID-19 virus, and now the AB-81 virus and somehow won a franchise-high AND NFL best 13 games this season.
The 1st Half Defense
We can use the injury excuse, but it doesn’t really explain why this defense allowed the 28th ranked offense in the league to march up and down the field on them in the first half of this game. In the first quarter alone, Carolina ran 24 plays for 106 yards and held the ball for 13:26 of the 15:00 quarter. In comparison, the Bucs ran just 3 plays for 3 yards and had the ball for 1:34 of the 15:00 quarter. In the first half, they ran 40 plays for 183 yards and had the ball for 21:37 of the 30:00 minutes.
Even though they only allowed 7 points in that half, the Bucs defense allowed 11 first down conversions and could not get off the field. In comparison, they allowed just 4 first down conversions to the Eagles in the second half even though they gave up 10 points. In the first half, the Bucs allowed drives of 14 plays, 10 plays, and 12 plays. In the second half, the longest drive Philly had was 9 plays in 7 possessions. I don’t know what takes these guys so long to wake up, but they need to fix it before these slow starts cost them a playoff game.
The Special Teams
I’ll let Ryan Succop slide on the missed 48-yard field goal because his plant foot did slip on the attempt. However, I’m not letting the kick coverage team off the hook. The Eagles returned four kickoffs for 119 yards and a 29-yard return average. At times, the coverage was good, but I’d like to see a little more consistency from them going into the playoffs.
After a season where he finished with 140 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks in 15 games, Devin White has had a disappointing year, finishing this regular season with 128 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, and just 3.5 sacks in 17 games. In his last three games WITHOUT Lavonte David, he’s totaled just 10 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 QB hits, zero sacks, zero interceptions, zero passes defensed, and zero forced fumbles. That’s not gonna cut it. He has to be better.
For the rookie, it’s the same thing. He’s had an opportunity over the last three games with Jason Pierre-Paul out (shoulder) and he has not taken advantage of it. He’s totaled just 7 tackles, 2 passes defensed and 1 QB hit with zero sacks and zero tackles for loss over the last three weeks. Anthony Nelson, who has been getting more snaps with Shaq and JPP out as well, has totaled 9 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 4 QB hits, and 3 sacks in the same three games. The first-round pick has to be better.
I know he was out for half of the season with the elbow injury, but this is another guy that needs to step his game up in the postseason. He got beat for the 19-yard touchdown pass to Robbie Andersen early in the fourth quarter to get the Panthers within a score. In 8 starts, he’s totaled just 3 passes defensed and 1 tackle for loss with zero interceptions, zero sacks, and zero QB hits. For a nickel corner in this defense, that’s unacceptable. As much as I like the kid, he’s got to be better in the playoffs like he was last year, especially if they don’t have Jamel Dean, who injured his hamstring in this game.
Bruce Arians was asked about it on Monday, and he defended his medical training staff, saying that “These injuries just happen“. It happened last year and it’s happening again this year. A rash of hamstring injuries is hitting this team for the second year in a row. Early on, it was in the secondary with Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, and Richard Sherman. Mike Evans just had one. Leonard Fournette has been out with one. Cyril Grayson and Jamel Dean both went out with them in this game. Hamstring injuries may “just happen“, but they seem to happen a lot with this team. Maybe they need to do some more deadlifts in the weight room or something, but they need to get a handle on that situation quickly.
The Radio Silence
Legendary Buccaneers radio play-by-play man Gene Deckerhoff was unable to call this game against the Panthers due to COVID-19 protocols. It was the first Buccaneers game that he’s missed since 1989. I know all of Buc Nation will be hoping and praying for his return to the booth next week for the playoffs.
The 1st Quarter
Man, was it ugly? I’ve already talked about it a little bit, but it took the Bucs about a quarter and a half to wake up and start playing their brand of football. Even though it only resulted in a 7-0 score, the Bucs defense allowed the Eagles to run 24 plays for 106 yards and hold the ball for 13:26 of the 15:00 quarter. On Carolina’s first three possessions, they allowed drives of 14 plays, 10 plays, and 12 plays, while giving up 12 first down conversions. Even though they only gave up the 7 points, the defense could not get off the field and allowed one of the worst offenses in the league to march up and down the field with ease.
This was a good team win. They really needed this one after the drama-filled week that they had with the Antonio Brown soap opera. It was their 13th win. It was a division win. It helped them secure the #2 seed for the playoffs. It was big. For them to rally around each other and accomplish it says a lot about this team and where they’re at mentally. Hopefully, they use it as a springboard into the playoffs, and it propels them on to another amazing postseason run.
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Speaking of the postseason: the playoff picture was FINALLY finalized after all the games were over on Sunday night. The Packers stayed in that #1 seed and will have a first-round bye. The Bucs finished in the #2 seed thanks to the Niners’ win over the Rams in overtime and will host the #7 seed Philadelphia Eagles at 1 pm next Sunday (Added bonus, the Niners win also officially knocked the Saints out of the playoffs). The Cowboys are the #3 seed and will host the #6 seed 49ers. And the Rams finished as the #4 seed and will host the #5 seed Cardinals. The Packers will host the lowest remaining seed in the divisional round, which means the Bucs would host whichever team is left IF they beat Philly next week. The better news is that Bucs fans are now GUARANTEED at least two home playoff games at Raymond James Stadium this year. Now bring on the big boy football!
THE LOOK AHEAD
Ah, the good old Philadelphia Eagles. Our old nemesis from the early 2000s. The team that I used to hate AFTER the late 90’s Rams and BEFORE the Sean Payton/Drew Brees led Saints; however, this Eagles team is a little different from that old Eagles team. They finished with the #1 rushing offense in the league, with 2,715 yards averaging 160 yards per game. Their leading rusher was quarterback Jalen Hurts with 784 yards and 10 touchdowns, but they also had four other players with 290+ rushing yards that averaged more than 4 yards per carry for the season. In Week 6, the Bucs defense was able to hold Hurts to 12 of 26 for 115 passing yards and 44 rushing yards, but he did score 3 touchdowns. They’ll need to keep him contained again next week.
The Eagles are 9-8, but when looking at their records versus common opponents, both teams are 6-3 against teams they both faced. The Eagles were 3-0 against Washington and New Orleans, while the Bucs were 0-3 against them. The Bucs were 2-0 against Dallas and the NY Giants, while the Eagles were 1-3 against them. Even though Philly was 6-2 over their last 8 games, they were 0-7 against teams with winning records. The Bucs were 7-2 in such games. The Bucs were also 7-1 at home this season — but the Eagles were 6-2 on the road.
The last time these two teams met was in Week 6 of this season. The Bucs won 28-22 DESPITE being outscored 15-7 in the second half and DESPITE playing without Rob Gronkowski, Lavonte David, Antoine Winfield Jr, Carlton Davis, and Sean Murphy-Bunting. The Bucs should be getting a number of players back from injury this week, including Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. They could be getting back Leonard Fournette, Jamel Dean, Richard Sherman, and maybe Giovanni Bernard. And there’s a possibility that they could be getting back Lavonte David, Ronald Jones, and even Cyril Grayson this week. Obviously, they still wouldn’t have receivers, Chris Godwin or Antonio Brown, but this could be as healthy as this team has been all year as a whole.
This game is going to be all about the trenches. A battle between the league’s #1 rushing offense and the #3 rushing defense. A battle between the Bucs offensive line’s pass blocking and the Eagles defensive line’s pass-rushing. A battle of which team wants it more. We’ll find out the answer to that question around 4 pm Sunday afternoon.