Depleted Bucs win division for 1st time since 07

  • Covered the Buccaneers since 2009
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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 Sunday with a 32-6 win over the Carolina Panthers, capturing their first division title since 2007 and giving the Bucs back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in franchise history.

They were without Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette, who, together, 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.

Instead, they relied on Antonio Brown, who was active for the first time since Week 6 due to an ankle injury and a three-game suspension and had 101 receiving yards on 10 catches, along with Cyril Grayson, who had just one catch for the whole season prior to Sunday and two for his whole career, but hauled in three catches for 81 yards.

On the ground, they 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 for the whole season. Vaughn took a handoff out of the backfield 55 yards for a touchdown on the second drive of the game, giving the Bucs their longest rushing touchdown of the year.

In the second quarter, Brady found tight end Cameron Brate, on a slant route, for a 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter 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 against the Saints. Jones added a third touchdown on a 7-yard run in the third quarter.

Throughout the season, the Bucs had what many deemed an “embarrassment of riches” on offense. Even without Brown for nine games and Gronkowski for five, they repeatedly put up 30 points a game.

That was until last week, when Godwin — two catches shy of 100 for the season — suffered a season-ending torn ACL against the New Orleans Saints, and Evans and Fournette went down with hamstring strains, with Fournette going to injured reserve and Evans’ hopes of returning by the end of the regular season slim. David also went to IR with a foot sprain, significantly jeopardizing the Bucs’ hopes of a repeat Super Bowl.

Against the Panthers, there were a few mistakes and in Brown’s case, some rust, as he and Brady weren’t on the same page 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 also surrendered a 33-yard designed run to Cam Newton on the Panthers’ opening drive. Had it not been for Ameer Abdullah tripping on his left tackle’s foot, the Panthers would have scored a touchdown on their opening drive, but instead, they settled for a 24-yard field goal. On a completely busted coverage, Sam Darnold found a wide-open Shi Smith for a 63-yard completion.

But Brown wound up being a difference-maker on third down, while 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.

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