With Mike Evans sidelined, Bucs' other receiving stars align and sparkle
Initially, the surplus of sleekness puzzled observers. Why were the Bucs, as well stocked at receiver as anyone in the NFL, gambling their integrity and offensive chemistry (if not much money) by signing controversial speedster Antonio Brown in late October?

The answer arrived in one fell slip Sunday afternoon. When 1,000-yard receiver Mike Evans lost his footing and contorted his knee in Raymond James Stadium's south end zone in the first half, a fan base collectively cringed.

Then it thanked its lucky stars, the whole darn constellation: Brown, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, even rookie Tyler Johnson. All had at least one catch Sunday.

"We've got weapons," coach Bruce Arians said following the Bucs' 44-27 win against the Falcons that clinched the franchise's first 11-win season since 2005. "Obviously, Mike is special. I kind of put Mike in that Vita (Vea) category - it's going to take two guys to replace him, for sure, if he's not there."

Thanks to the signing of Brown, Tampa Bay still possesses that proven tandem out wide to partially compensate for the loss of a two-time Pro Bowler with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

On Sunday, Brown and Godwin combined for 16 catches for 271 yards and four touchdowns. Eleven of those catches and 179 of the yards occurred in the second half. Brown (11 catches, 138 yards, two TDs), brandishing a burst the NFL hadn't seen since his Steelers tenure, enjoyed his best day as a Buc, with catches of 30, 25 and 23 yards.

"Just watching him kind of get his feet back underneath him (after playing only one game, for New England, in 2019) has been really, really cool," Godwin said. "He works his tail off, he loves the game of football. And just seeing a guy with that much passion come in and make some plays, the more plays he makes, the more excited he gets, the more passionate he is - that type of stuff is really infectious for the rest of us."

Godwin (five receptions, 133 yards, two TDs) hauled in arguably the most critical catch of the day, a deep Tom Brady spiral on third-and-12 for 47 yards, setting up his 4-yard scoring catch three plays later that gave Tampa Bay a 37-27 lead with 3:58 remaining.

"(Evans) does so much for everyone around here. ... But I think as a group, we did a pretty good job of bouncing back," Godwin said. "It took a couple of plays there, but we realized there was a task at hand and we got back to work. Thankfully, we have a ton of guys that are really talented. ... We just went out there and tried to make some plays and tried to propel us toward the playoffs."

Now, this group may be needed to propel the Bucs during the playoffs. Depending on the severity of Evans' injury, Tampa Bay may have to keep leaning on the constellation. For one Sunday, it proved capable of shining.

"It's just, ‘Hey, you young guys step up,'" Arians said. "‘Scotty, Tyler, step up. (Brown), go play X (receiver) and let's go.' There's nothing we can do about it at the time, and it sounds cold at times, but you have to go on."

Joey Knight, Tampa Bay Times, published 4 January 2021