CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It came a week late and without a good chunk of their star power, but Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the NFC South title with a 32-6 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, capturing their first division title since 2007 and giving them back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in franchise history.
“We wanted to hang three banners this year,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We don’t have one of those division banners up there for a long time. It feels great. This is what we focused on to win our division. Our guys did it today. Can’t be more prouder of the group that played today.”
Injures forced them to be without Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette, who comprised nearly 60% of their scoring offense. On defense, they were without outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, inside linebacker Lavonte David and safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
They also lost Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shaq Barrett to a knee injury in the third quarter. Initial indications are that Barrett suffered an MCL sprain and “nothing long term,” a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Further testing will be conducted on Monday.
“It looks like a minor MCL … right now,” Arians said. “Hopefully we don’t lose Shaq.”
In the passing game, the Bucs relied on Antonio Brown and Cyril Grayson. Brown, who was active for the first time since Week 6 (ankle injury, then a three-game suspension) had 101 receiving yards on 10 catches. Grayson, who had just one catch for the season prior to Sunday and two in his career, hauled in three catches for 81 yards.
“We had so many guys that stepped up and stepped in. We had a lot of trust in them,” Arians said, pointing out Grayson’s speed, “ferocious blocking” and ability to step up in big moments as what earned him the opportunity.
“He’s gotten so much better. If there was a ‘most improved player’ in the last two years, he’s worked harder than anybody we’ve had on our practice squad.”
On the ground, the Bucs turned to Ronald Jones II, who was unseated by Fournette for the starting running back role last season, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who before Sunday had rushed for just 50 yards on the season. Vaughn took a handoff 55 yards for a touchdown on the second drive of the game, giving the Bucs their longest rushing score of the year.
In the second quarter, Brady found Cameron Brate on a slant route for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 19-6, with the Bucs showing far heavier tight end usage after one of the unit’s worst performances of the season last week. Jones added the team’s third touchdown on a 7-yard run in the third quarter.
“We lost a lot. We lost a lot,” Brady said of the injuries. “And I don’t think you just make up for it overnight. We’re gonna have to learn each other. We’re gonna have to do some different things for the guys that are in there — guys are gonna have to keep getting better and making improvements. Hopefully we can get some guys back this week and then get a bit stronger at these positions.”
Throughout the season, the Bucs had what many deemed an embarrassment of riches on offense. Even without Brown for nine games and Rob Gronkowski for five, they repeatedly put up 30 points a game.
That was until last week, when the team could have clinched the division with a win but lost 9-0 to the New Orleans Saints. Godwin — two catches shy of 100 for the season — suffered a season-ending torn ACL, and Evans and Fournette went down with hamstring strains. Fournette went to injured reserve and Evans’ hopes of returning by the end of the regular season are slim. David, with a foot sprain, also went to IR, jeopardizing the Bucs’ hopes of a repeat Super Bowl.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” Brady said. “Winning the division is hard to do. And we’ve earned it. We’re 11-4. It’s not the greatest record in the world, but it’s certainly not the worst either. So 11-4 — I’ll take it. We lost some tough games. I think we’ve learned from each of those tough losses.”
And they’re still learning.
Against the Panthers, there were a few mistakes and, in Brown’s case, some rust, as he and Brady were on different pages on a third-down pass on the opening drive. Brate also wasn’t on the same page with Brady at the Carolina 4-yard line, and on third down, Brady and Gronkowski failed to connect on a corner route in the end zone.
The defense surrendered a 33-yard designed run to Cam Newton on the Panthers’ opening drive. Had it not been for Ameer Abdullah tripping on one of his left tackle’s feet, the Panthers would have scored a touchdown on their opening drive, but instead they settled for a 24-yard field goal. On busted coverage, Sam Darnold found a wide-open Shi Smith for a 63-yard completion.
But they kept the Panthers out of the end zone all game. Safety Jordan Whitehead, who led the team with seven combined tackles, notched an interception on a Newton pass intended for tight end Tommy Tremble. Defensive lineman Will Gholston, Barrett, outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, defensive tackle Vita Vea and inside linebacker Kevin Minter combined for a season-high seven sacks, with Gholston registering 2.5.
And Brown was a difference-maker on third down.
“When I watched him practice this week, I knew he was in great shape,” Arians said of Brown, who registered his 23rd career game of 10-plus receptions, breaking a tie with Andre Johnson for most in NFL history. “He was healthy this week and told me, ‘Whatever you need, I’m there.'”
Speaking to reporters for the first time since his suspension, Brown quipped “next question” when asked about what it meant that Arians stood in his corner despite the coach making it clear that there would be no second chances.
An NFL investigation determined that Brown and teammate Mike Edwards used fake COVID-19 vaccination cards.
“We just want to talk about this game. We don’t want to waste no time with you guys writing,” Brown said. “I don’t want to talk about that. You guys is all about drama. This is all about football. We just talk about Carolina or I don’t want to talk to you guys.
“I’m just here to do my job, man. I can’t control what people write, how people try to frame me or people try to bring me down. And life is about obstacles and persevering and doing what’s right and getting the right outcome. I’m standing here before you guys grateful, humble, thankful and excited to be a part of a big win with my team. It’s not about what I did, but what all the guys in there did collectively together, and that’s it.
“It’s a lot of drama. A lot of drama you guys create. A lot of drama that people create who want something from me. But that’s just a part of life. It’s a part of being in the position that I’m in. I can’t control what people want from me. I can’t control what people write about me. I can’t control what people say about me. All I can do get up every day and be the best person I can be and when I get a chance to do my job, do my job the best way I can do it, and that’s what we had today.”