By Terrance Turner
Jan. 9, 2022
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the Carolina Panthers at home in Raymond James Stadium today. Heading into their regular-season finale, the Bucs dealt with a slew of injuries: wide receiver Chris Godwin is out for the season with a torn ACL; running back Leonard Fournette has a hamstring injury, RB Chris Jones hurt his ankle, and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul has a torn rotator cuff. Cornerback Richard Sherman is also ruled out. Antonio Brown is now off the team. Yet despite these losses, the Buccaneers steamrolled the Panthers in Tampa, with several players breaking records.
The Panthers jumped out to an early lead when running back Chuba Hubbard received a touchdown pass from quarterback Sam Darnold. Buccaneers kicker Ryan Succop put the Bucs on the board when he drilled a 9-yard field goal. And RB Le’Veon Bell caught a one-yard touchdown to give Tampa Bay a slim lead. It was 10-7 at the half.
The Bucs opened up their lead in the second half. Mike Evans was hurt early on, but after some time on the ground he rose to his feet. In Evans’ absence, Brady turned to one of his favorite targets. He found tight end Rob Gronkowski for a huge 42-yard reception. Then he threw to Gronk again, this time for 19 yards. Because of incentives on Gronk’s contract, he will receive an additional $500,000 for making seven catches in today’s game.
Gronk’s incentive-laden catch helped set up a touchdown. RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn rushed two yards for the score. That made it 17-7. Carolina responded when kicker Lirim Hajrullahu made a 35-yard field goal.
Mike Evans returned with a vengeance in the fourth quarter. Four seconds in, he caught a pass from Brady to score. In the process, he broke a franchise record. This three-yard TD reception was Evans’ 75th career touchdown — the most ever by a Buccaneers player.
The Bucs enjoyed a commanding 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter — until Panthers QB Sam Darnold threw a 19-yard touchdown to receiver Robby Anderson. Hajrullahu’s extra-point kick was good, and it was back to a one-score game. But then Mike Evans struck again. Brady hurled the pass to Evans, who caught it one-handed for his second touchdown. In the process, Evans broke his own record with a 20-yard touchdown catch — the 14th of the season and the 76th of his career. That’s the most TDs by any player in Buccaneers team history.
After Evans’ touchdown, Carolina took over. But the Bucs defense forced a turnover, and cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. picked the ball up. With the Bucs in possession, Brady spurned calls for him to sit down and got back in the game. (CBS footage on the sidelines showed Brady retrieving his helmet and telling the coaching staff that he wasn’t coming out of the game.)
He stayed just long enough to heave one last pass to Gronkowski, ensuring that Gronk’s incentive goes from ‘$500,000 to $1 million. (According to USA Today, “Gronk went into the game with the possibility of hitting $1 million in incentive bonuses. All Gronk needed was seven catches and 85 receiving yards to hit two separate bonuses of $500,000 each.”) Brady would not come out of the game until he’d earned his longtime friend one last bonus.
Brady exited the game with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter; QB Blaine Gabbert took over. The Bucs added a 40-yard field goal from kicker Ryan Succop and a 33-yard run by WR Scotty Miller to pad their lead. The Panthers (after a high-flying start) were unable to The Buccaneers beat the Panthers 41-17. It’s their 13th win of the season (a franchise record).
Brady broke his own franchise record for the most touchdown passes in a single season with 41, and broke Jameis Winston’s single-season team mark for passing yards. Gronkowski finished with 7 catches for 137 yards, giving him the most 100+-yard games of any tight end in NFL history. (He surpassed Tony Gonzalez’s previous record.) And Mike Evans just notched his 76th career touchdown — a Buccaneers franchise record. He is also the only player in NFL history to have eight straight 1,000-yard seasons.
“I’m proud of it, and hopefully I get to do that while I’m in the league, every single year,” Evans told a reporter after the game.