RUNNING AWAY WITH THE NFC SOUTH TITLE!
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back-to-back NFC South Champs for the first time in their 46-year franchise history after beating the division rival Carolina Panthers 30-24 in front of a packed out Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly at times. But they came together in the end to pull out a hard fought team win getting them back to .500 with an 8-8 record and earning a playoff spot. The Bucs are headed back to the postseason for a third straight season, which has only happened one other time in their history (99-02).
This team was able to pull another win out of their ass DESPITE trying to beat themselves once again. They’ve made a habit this season out of “Bucs Beating Bucs” as Todd Bowles likes to put it. Dumb penalties, dropped passes, missed assignments, missed tackles, missed kicks, missed opportunities. This game was just like the other 15 games this season, with the exception of one thing. They won. Out of the 8 games they have won this year, the Bucs have comeback from double-digit deficits in three of them over the last five weeks. They’ve only done that two other times in franchise history. Once in 2008 and the other in 2020 on their way to winning the Super Bowl.
Coming from behind after cold starts seems to be the Buccaneers winning formula this season. In five of their eight wins, they have scored more points in the 4th quarter than they have totaled in the first three quarters combined. In those 5 games (both Saints games, Rams, Cardinals and Panthers), they totaled just 28 points in the first three quarters and 74 points in the fourth quarters. Just call them “The Cardiac Kids” because they keep their fans on the edge of their seats until the very end. This game was no different. The Bucs got down 14-0 early on, but came on strong in the second half to pull out the win. So let’s take a look at my “GOOD, BAD & UGLY” from the Bucs Week 17 matchup with the Carolina Panthers.
In their first meeting in Week 7 this season, the Bucs were embarrassed in Carolina getting dominated 21-3 by the Panthers who ran all over Tampa’s defense and kept Tom Brady’s offense out of the endzone for the first time this year. At the time, that Panthers team was a complete mess with a record of 1-5, having just fired their head coach and traded away two of their best offensive players in Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson. They came into this game with one of the NFL’s hottest rushing attacks having won three of their last four games and battling the Bucs for first place in the division. This game meant more for BOTH teams than that Week 7 matchup did. Especially for the Buccaneers. If they had lost this game, they would’ve needed help next week to win the division and get into the playoffs. Now, they’ve not only punched their ticket into the postseason, but they’ve punched out the other three teams from making it into the playoffs as well. That’s got to make this victory even more gratifying.
Tom Brady and Mike Evans FINALLY connected deep down the field, not once, not twice, but three times in this game. Brady’s longest touchdown pass this season before this game was just 31 yards. He had three bombs to Evans in this one for 63 yards, 57 yards and 30 yards. It was nice to see and reminded Bucs fans of the good old days when Tampa Bay was able to score points at will against any team in the league (except for the Saints). It also gave fans a glimpse of what this offense is still capable of when Brady gets enough time in the pocket.
The Run Stopping
The Bucs defense came into this game with one thing on their minds- STOPPING THE RUN! In their Week 7 meeting, Carolina ran all over the Bucs with D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard combining for 181 yards on 24 carries and averaging over 7 yards per carry. In this game, the Bucs made it a point to make the Panthers offense one dimensional and force Sam Darnold to beat them with his arm. This time, they held Foreman and Hubbard to 16 carries for 47 yards averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. A bunch of Bucs defensive players stepped up, including Will Gholston who finished with 5 tackles and 2 tackles for loss and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka who had a career-high 7 tackles with 4 run-stops.
The Quick Thinking
Late in the 4th quarter, Carolina kicked a field goal to make it 30-24 with about a minute left in the game. Then, they forced the Bucs offense to punt after a three and out at the Panthers 39-yard line. Rookie punter Jake Camarda set up to punt and longsnapper Zach Triner snapped the ball to him. The snap was low and Camarda had to field it off the turf. Once he secured the football, he took off running towards the left sideline evading two Carolina defenders during his escape. When he was in the clear, he dropped the ball, kicking it with his right foot while running to his left and got the punt off which then bounced inside the Panthers 5-yard line where it was downed by rookie corner Zyon McCollum. Unfortunately, none of it counted. The Bucs were flagged for an “ineligible man downfield” penalty and they had to back up 10-yards and punt it again. This time, the snap was good and the punt was normal, but he only pinned the Panthers back on their own 8-yard line instead of their 3-yard line.
But let’s talk about how important this play was and what it meant for the Bucs. If Camarda just falls on the ball there, runs out of bounds or even gets tackled on that play, Carolina would have to ball around the Bucs 40-yard line, down just 6 points with about 40 seconds left in the game. Instead, the Panthers had to start from their own 8-yard line with just 26 seconds on the clock. It was an extremely heads-up play by the rookie and Todd Bowles said it was probably the most athletic play he’d ever seen by a punter.
The Pass Defending
Coming into this game, the Buccaneers had the 4th ranked pass defense in the NFL. That was before they ran into the offensive juggernaut known as Sam Darnold. They allowed him to complete 23 of 37 passes for 341 yards and 3 touchdowns. On their first drive of the game, he was 4 of 4 for 60 yards and a touchdown. Darnold had just 4 touchdowns total in the 4 games he played this season and the Bucs gave him three in this game. With Carlton Davis III “OUT” for this game and Jamel Dean still hampered by a toe injury, Sean Murphy-Bunting stepped up and had another BIG game, but the other “Gravediggers” who played didn’t do their part.
The Buccaneers 32nd ranked rushing offense looked the part in this game. Leonard Fournette finished with 10 carries for 28 yards and a 2.8 yards per carry average, while Rachaad White totaled 11 carries for 22 yards and a 2.0 yards per carry average. As a team, the Bucs had 25 carries for 67 yards averaging just 2.7 yards per carry against the Panthers. That’s even lower than their league-worst 73 yards per game average for this season. Their only rushing touchdown of the day came via a Tom Brady QB sneak from the 1-yard line. That gives them a league-low 5 rushing touchdowns this season, which is the second-lowest total in Buccaneers history (1977- 4td’s). The Bucs have now rushed for 1,222 yards in 16 games this season. There are only three teams in the last 10 years to rush for less (2019 Dolphins- 1,156, 2017 Lions- 1,221, 2016 Vikings- 1.205) and none of them made the playoffs. The last team to rush for less and get into the postseason was the 2008 Cardinals who went 9-7 and made it to the Super Bowl.
It hasn’t happened very often this season, but veteran kicker Ryan Succop made it on to my “BAD” list. He was just 1 for 3 in this game with a miss from 53-yards and a blocked attempt from 26-yards. He also missed an extra point attempt, his first XP miss in 23 attempts this season. He is now 2 for 7 on field goals of 50+ yards, while he’s 28 for 30 from inside of 50 yards. Succop has the second-most field goals this season trailing ONLY Carolina’s Eddy Pineiro who’s made 30 of 32 from inside 50-yards.
There was one call that I had a problem with in this game that I just can’t let slide. With about two-minutes left in the first half and Carolina up 14-7, Sam Darnold fumbled the snap and Tampa Bay recovered the football on the Panthers 13-yard line. The Bucs were down to the 4-yard line in two plays and were faced with a 3rd & 1 scenario. The third down pass to Cade Otton fell incomplete and Todd Bowles was faced with the decision to kick the short field goal OR go for it on 4th & 1 from the 4-yard line. He decided to kick. Down 7 points. On the 4-yard line. With the defense playing good. He chooses to kick and take the 3 points rather than try to tie the game with a touchdown. Remember, they only needed a yard for the first down. They get it and it’s 1st & goal from the 3-yard line and they get four more shots at the endzone AND run the clock down to the half. Instead, he kicks it giving Carolina the ball with a minute left. I realize the Bucs haven’t been very good at 3rd/4th & short this season, but in that scenario going for it seems like the best play.
They FINALLY scored 30 points again (only other time this season was in Week 4 against the Chiefs), but it wasn’t pretty. They ran 73 plays for 478 total yards, but they also committed too many penalties, turned the ball over once, were only 4 of 15 on third down and missed a scoring opportunity in the redzone. They had six drives of six plays or less including 5 plays/41 yards/fumble, 4 plays/18 yards/punt, 3 plays/-8 yards/punt, 4 plays/9 yards/field goal, 5 plays/12 yards/punt, 6 plays/6 yards/punt and 3 plays/-5 yards/punt. They had the long ball working down the field with Evans, but they once again had trouble running the football. It was the same old story for this offense, with the ONLY exception being the three deep balls to Evans. They have run 1,105 plays on offense this season. That leads the NFL and it’s 88 more plays than they ran in their Super Bowl season. However, they’ve scored 196 FEWER points than 2020 and they rank 11th in yards and 24th in points this year. The reasons for that disparity are their inability to convert third downs or score in the redzone AND their habits of shooting themselves in the foot with penalties, dropped passes and missed opportunities.
Brady easily had his best game of the year finishing 34 of 45 for 432 yards and 4 touchdowns (3 passing, 1 rushing). It was the first time in 381 career games that he had 400+ yards, 75% completions and 45+ attempts without an interception. There’s ONLY 10 such games in NFL history. The 432 yards matched the fifth most of his career AND his high with the Bucs and his 127.3 QB rating was his fifth best as a Buc and highest of this season. One reason for the improvement might be because his o-line is giving him a little more time to throw these days. In Weeks 1-9, his time to throw averaged about 2.25 seconds. From Weeks 10-17, his time to throw has averaged 2.38 seconds. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. Especially for the best quarterback of all-time. Plus, the more time they give him the more comfortable he gets with his pass protection and the more he’s willing to hold on to the ball a little longer.
Even though they had some success this week, the offensive playcalling is still suspect at times. In the Bucs 10 drives of three or more plays, they used no-huddle on three of them scoring touchdowns each time. The other 7 drives used zero no-huddle and totaled just 3 points. On those three no-huddle drives, Brady was 12 of 12 for 226 yards and 3 touchdowns.
SO WHY DON’T THEY USE IT MORE OFTEN???
It’s the same thing with play-action. The Bucs have the lowest percentage of play-action dropbacks in the NFL, yet they are 6th in the league in yards per play-action play averaging 2 yards MORE per play than plays without play-action. Brady is one of ProFootballFocus.com’s top graded quarterbacks on play-action passes, yet he’s doing it LESS than all the other QB’s in the league. Explain that to me. If something works, why not do it more often? I just don’t get it.
BIG BUCS OF THE DAY
OFFENSE : WR Mike Evans
This is a no-brainer in this game. He nearly had himself a career day finishing with 10 catches on 12 targets for 207 yards and 3 touchdowns. Chris Godwin deserves some love too with his 9 catches on 9 targets for 120 yards, but he also had that fumble early on and was flagged for an offensive pass interference too. He only needs 32-yards to reach his 1,000-yard mark for this season DESPITE missing games. But Evans was “that dude” in this one. He was just 2 yards shy of his career-high for receiving yards in a game (209), which he set in 2014 as a rookie. That yardage also put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the ninth time in his career, tying him with Tim Brown (9) and putting him just two behind Jerry Rice (11) for most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. It also puts him at a tie for third for most 1,000-yard seasons in a career (9) with Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, Tim Brown and Jimmy Smith. The ONLY players with more are Jerry Rice (14) and Randy Moss (10). Not bad company. Also, his three touchdowns put him at exactly 500 points scored for his career. The ONLY two players in Buccaneers history with more career points are Martin Gramatica (592) and Michael Husted (502), both kickers.
DEFENSE : CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
There were a few players worthy of this one in this game. I thought about giving it to Joe Tryon-Shoyinka who had 7 tackles and 4 run-stops making plays all over the field. Then I thought about giving it to Anthony Nelson who had 3 tackles and the sack/forced fumble at the end of the game to set the Bucs up for another touchdown to extend their lead to 10 points. But in the end, I settled on SMB because he had a HUGE game for the secondary, who was missing Carlton Davis III and had Jamel Dean playing on a bad toe. Murphy-Bunting finished with 3 tackles, 2 pass break-ups, an interception AND a forced fumble. This is the third week in a row that he’s played really well, which is good for this Bucs defense that is starting to get healthy going into the playoffs.
BAD BUCS OF THE DAY
OFFENSE : TE Cade Otton
For whatever reason, this is his second bad game in a row. Over the last two weeks, he’s had just 4 catches on 13 targets for 29 yards. Brady was just 2 of 6 when throwing to Otton in this game, while he was 30 of 34 on throws to everyone else including 19 of 21 for 327 yards to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. His best catch & run of 30-yards in the 2nd quarter was negated by an offensive pass interference flag on Chris Godwin. He did make an important play late on special teams recovering the Panthers onside kick and helping secure the victory, but as Tampa Bay’s #1 tight end option he really needs to step up his game heading into the playoffs.
DEFENSE : S Antoine Winfield Jr.
I hate doing this because “Ant-Man” is one of my favorite players and one of the best defenders on this team. However, he had arguably his worst game of the season on Sunday. He finished with 5 tackles and a sack, but he got torched in pass coverage as the slot safety. He got burned for 26-yards on the first play of the game. Later on that same drive, he was flagged for pass interference. He got beat on a 4th & 3 play for 7 yards giving Carolina a first down. Then later on that drive, was beat for a 24-yard touchdown by DJ Moore. Then on a 1st & 20 play later on, he was flagged again for defensive holding which gave the Panthers 1st & 10 on the next play. It was not a good day for him at all. Luckily, those days don’t come around too often for him. I’m sure he’ll bounce back strong and be good to go for this playoff run.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have clinched the 4th seed in the playoffs by winning their second straight NFC South title in a row for the first time in franchise history. It’s just the second time the Bucs have made the postseason in three consecutive years. The ONLY other time was the 99-02 seasons. So what’s the playoff scenario look like in the NFC? Unfortunately, we will have to wait until Sunday to find out for sure. The Eagles and Cowboys are still playing for the NFC East title. As it stands right now, the Eagles are leading the division and in the #1 seed at 13-3, while the Cowboys are sitting at 12-4 in the 5th seed. If the playoffs started this weekend, the Bucs would be hosting the Cowboys in the wildcard round. However, if the Eagles lose to the Giants AND the Cowboys beat the Commanders on Sunday, the Cowboys would win the East and the Eagles would finish as the #5 seed playing Tampa Bay in the first round.
As for the rest of the NFC playoff picture, the Niners and Vikings also have a chance at the #1 seed if they win on Sunday, but they would need losses by the Cowboys and Eagles to do it. The Giants are locked in as the #6 seed, but there are three teams still alive for the 7th seed including the Packers, the Lions and the Seahawks. Green Bay would get it with a win over the Lions. Detroit needs a win over the Packers AND a Seahawks loss to the Rams. And Seattle would need a win over the Rams AND a Packers loss to the Lions. For those who are not familiar with the NFL’s playoff bracket, seven teams make the playoffs in each conference with the #1 seed having a first round bye, the #2 seed playing the #7 seed, the #3 seed playing the #6 seed and the #4 seed playing the #5 seed.
THE LOOK AHEAD
Next up for the Buccaneers is a “meaningless” game against the Falcons on the road. At 6-10, Atlanta has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs so they aren’t playing for anything other than pride and a chance to play spoiler to the Bucs. The Bucs don’t really have anything to win or lose either, but they would still prefer to win this game and keep their momentum going into the playoffs. So far, Todd Bowles says that they will be playing all of their healthy starters in this game. Players who have been nursing injuries lately may be limited or not play at all. But as of right now, Tom Brady will be starting at quarterback for the Buccaneers. Whether he plays the whole game or not is still up in the air.
THE WRAP UP
This win against the Panthers was HUGE for the Buccaneers. Not only did they get revenge for that Week 7 beatdown in Carolina, but it helped them win the division and clinch a playoff birth a week early. It also extends their win streak to two games and keeps momentum up heading into Week 18. If they can pull off a win in Atlanta, they will go into the playoffs riding a three-game winning streak and feeling pretty good about themselves. This team is starting to get healthy at the right time. They might even get starting center Ryan Jensen back for the playoffs. The offense is starting to figure things out. The defense is playing pretty good. As bad as things have been throughout this entire season, this could end up being a team that nobody in the NFC wants to see in the postseason. But before the Bucs think about that, they have to take care of business in Atlanta on Sunday.