Tom Brady, Mike Evans torch Panthers, secure NFC South with dramatic 4th-quarter rally

If this indeed is Tom Brady's last ride, he'll finish in the postseason.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied from a 14-0 first-half hole and a 21-10 fourth-quarter deficit on Sunday to beat the Carolina Panthers, 30-24 and secure the NFC South title at a current 8-8 record. The win extends a now-14-year streak of Brady-quarterbacked teams making the playoffs. He can thank Mike Evans for helping him seal the deal Sunday.

The Bucs receiver tallied three of Tampa Bay's touchdowns Sunday, all of them on long balls. His third score was a 36-yard strike from Brady down the right sideline in the fourth quarter to give the Bucs their first lead.

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With starting cornerback Jaycee Horn sidelined, the Panthers had no answer for Evans, who ran free through the secondary for 10 catches, 207 yards and the three scores. In the process, he extended his remarkable streak with his ninth straight 1,000-yard season to start his career. Brady completed 34 of 45 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns. He added another late rushing touchdown.

Jan 1, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA;  Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) gets pumped up prior to the game against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Brady is back in the playoffs for a 14th straight season. (Kim Klement/Reuters)

Panthers start strong, collapse late

The Panthers would have taken control of the division and their playoff path with a win. For three quarters, they looked well on their way. Sam Darnold threw two first-half touchdowns to lead them to a 14-0 lead as Tampa Bay struggled to move the ball.

The Bucs eventually got on the board with Evans' first touchdown on a 63-yard pass from Brady late in the first half. Cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. couldn't keep pace with the four-time Pro Bowler, and Brady hit Evans in stride.

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The Bucs then had chances to take control of the game with Darnold turnovers on Carolina possessions at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second. But the Bucs managed just 3 points off the miscues and saw a 15-play 90-yard drive come up empty when the Panthers blocked a Ryan Succop field-goal attempt.

The Panthers capitalized on the ensuing possession when Darnold threw his third touchdown on a 19-yard strike to Shi Smith to extend their lead to 21-10 early in the fourth quarter. But they just couldn't stop Evans.

The Bucs struck back with Evans' second score on their next possession, this time a 57-yard completion. Like his other two scores, Evans ran untouched down the right sideline and past the Carolina secondary, this time beating cornerback C.J. Henderson.

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Carolina had a chance to retake the lead late in the fourth quarter after forcing a Bucs punt with 2:39 remaining. But Darnold's second fumble on an Anthony Nelson sack set up a Brady touchdown sneak to extend Tampa Bay's lead to 30-21. The Bucs averted disaster on their next possession when rookie punter Jake Camarda gathered a low snap, then scrambled to get off a punt near the line of scrimmage.

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A penalty for an ineligible receiver nullified the punt and Camarda pinned Carolina deep on the next play. Carolina's last-gasp possession starting with 26 seconds remaining came up well short, and the Bucs secured the NFC South for a second straight season.

Darnold played well, completing 23 of 37 passes for 341 yards with three touchdowns. But two lost fumbles and an interception kept the Bucs close enough to rally for Brady's 19th division title.

It's not a vintage Brady season, and could end with a losing record with a loss next week, but he has secured his shot at an eighth Super Bowl ring.