By: Michelle Sabin
Sports Talk Florida
Buccaneers went to work Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers. Although it was a slow start offensively, Tampa Bay picked up the tempo at the end of the first half and never looked back.
“Today got off to a little bit of a rough start,” Tom Brady said, “but we found a way to get some rhythm.” After three-and-out drives, incomplete passes and a first quarter netting only 3 yards offensively, Tampa Bay finally found the spark they needed in receiver Mike Evans.
With less than two minutes in the half, Carolina was leading 7-3 after a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hubbard and a Buccaneers 39-yard field goal. Tampa Bay’s offense took the field on their own 8-yard line.
Brady threw a short pass to Tyler Johnson for no gain, and then an incomplete pass. On 3rd and 10, Brady lined up in shotgun formation and found Evans on a short slant route. After making cuts around Carolina, Evans turned up field for a 37-yard play.
“We needed that surge of momentum and you’ve got to give it to Mike,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said, “Mike with that catch and run just making some guys miss on the run aspect of it. It got us fired up, got us going and that’s what we needed.”
Gronkowski followed suit with two back-to-back catches for 7 and 19 yards. However, it was the recent addition, running back Le’Veon Bell, who found his way into the end zone. On 2nd down from the 1-yard line, Brady rolled right with Bell for a 1-yard touchdown pass and Bell walked right in.
With that, Brady became the franchise leader in single-season passing touchdowns. In fact, the Buccaneers broke several records throughout the night including Gronkowski leading the NFL with the most 100-yard games for a tight end, and Evans with his eighth consecutive 1000-yard season.
Evans had two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one 3-yard pass and the other on a deep 20-yard pass. With those two plays, he surpassed his own record for most single-season receiving touchdowns in team history (14).
However, it appeared the fans were just as excited to see the return of receiver Scotty Miller for his first touchdown of the season.
The Bucs were ahead 34-17 with five minutes left in the game and had just forced Carolina to turn over the ball on downs. Tampa Bay took the field on the Carolina 33-yard line. It took just one play, as Miller came off the line for the hand-off from Blaine Gabbert. Miller took off down the sideline for the 33-yard touchdown run. The team ran over to congratulate him in the end zone and the crowd chanted his name.
Evans said, “[Scotty Miller’s] the ultimate pro, great teammate. I was happy to see him get out there and play a little running back, get some rushing yards.”
Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn also got in on the action Sunday with a 2-yard touchdown run. Despite being down several key players, and losing Cyril Grayson in the first half, the Buccaneers proved they still have an arsenal offensively. The question is whether it will hold up through the playoffs.
Defensively, according to head coach Bruce Arians, the Buccaneers gave up too many run-pass options. However, they made big stops throughout the game where it counted most, including a goal-line stance in the second quarter on 4th and 1. Carolina attempted a quarterback sneak up the middle at the 2-yard line, but Sam Darnold was quickly shut down by Steve McLendon and the Bucs line for no gain.
In the fourth quarter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches forced Darnold to fumble as he attempted another run up the middle. It was recovered by safety Antoine Winfield Jr. for 9-yards. Two drives later, backup safety Andrew Adams took advantage of a bad route by receiver Robby Anderson and was able to intercept Carolina with four minutes left in the game.
Tampa Bay capped off the regular season with a 41-17 win over Carolina. Their 13-win regular season record is a first for the franchise.
Meanwhile, on the west coast, the San Francisco 49ers forced the Los Angeles Rams into overtime. As the Buccaneers game winded down, the Rams game was put up on the Jumbotron at Raymond James. A few Buccaneers players stayed on the field to watch as the 49ers beat LA securing Tampa Bay as the number 2 seed in the NFC for the playoffs.
The Buccaneers will take on the Philadelphia Eagles at home on January 16 at 1:00PM for the Wild Card round. “We are going to have to play our best game of the year,” Brady said, “It’s going to be a very tough game.”
The videos used in this story were provided by the Buccaneers Youtube channel.