Bucs hit milestones, beat Panthers for franchise-best 13th win
Scoreboard-watching is a lot easier when all the scores are posted on the electronic board. But for the longest time Sunday, the Bucs brass decided not to illuminate the 49ers at Rams game, which was being played at the same time in Inglewood, Calif. Wins by the 49ers and Bucs would give Tampa Bay the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the playoffs.

So Bucs players and coaches were kept quite literally in the dark about that game. All except head coach Bruce Arians, who transformed into the quarterback whisperer.

"I knew what was going on," Arians said. "We kept it off the scoreboard ... so the players wouldn't. I was whispering to Tom (Brady) every now and then. I really wanted to get him out of the game, but we gave up a touchdown. But then we got the turnovers, so it worked out great."

Brady threw three touchdown passes, including two to Mike Evans, who ignited the Bucs after a lackluster start in a 41-17 win over the Panthers. As the Bucs players trudged off to a victorious locker room with a franchise best 13-4 record, they paused to watch the 49ers and Rams battle in overtime on the Jumbotron in the south end zone at Raymond James Stadium.

Some spilled into the locker room and huddled around televisions. The 49ers came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat the Rams 27-24 with a game-sealing interception by rookie Ambry Thomas. The Bucs will host the Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) in the wild-card game next Sunday and play at least two postseason contests at home if they advance.

"Coach told us he wasn't going to have the score of that game on during our game, which makes total sense," said Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski, who led the Bucs with seven catches for 137 yards. "We had to take care of business first, because if we didn't take care of business, we would've never gotten the No. 2 seed."

The Bucs' game was full of milestones that could have become millstones had Brady not been able to make so many achievements possible. Evans had 89 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the eighth straight season to start his career, extending his NFL record.

The Bucs got off to a horrifically slow start and had only one possession in the first quarter. Until they took the ball over with 1:48 remaining in the first half, they had managed only 48 total yards.

It was Evans who got the Bucs rolling. On third and 10 from his own 8-yard line, Brady connected with Evans, who made two Panthers miss on a 37-yard gain. From there, it was passes to Gronkowski for 7 and 20 yards. Then Breshad Perriman made a toe-tapping sideline catch for 24 more. Two plays later, Brady hit Le'Veon Bell in the right flat for a 1-yard TD and 10-7 halftime lead.

Gronkowski entered the game needing 85 receiving yards to earn a $500,000 performance bonus. He got that by the third quarter. He needed seven catches to reach 55 on the season and earn another half-million. He did in on Brady's last pass of the game before the offense was turned over to Blaine Gabbert.

"It's cool to hit those," Gronkowski said of the incentives. "I'm going to have to bring all the tight ends out to dinner, a couple of the quarterbacks. I don't bring Tom. I'm going to bring the backup quarterbacks out to dinner and all that good stuff. Maybe my coach out to dinner. Everyone's expecting a little handout."

Evans reached the 1,000-yard milestone on a 5-yard reception of a pass in the right flat early in the third quarter. Brady tore a few pages from the Bucs' record book as well. His 5,316 yards and 43 TD passes are both club records, most in the NFL this season and career highs. In fact, it's the most passing yards for Brady since 2011.

All that is in the past. The Bucs have an uncertain future. They need to get linebackers Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul back on a defense that suddenly can't stop the run. They need running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones back on offense, and now could be without receiver Cyril Grayson, who left the game with a hamstring pull.

The 2021 season has been historic. Record-breaking. But all that matters now is beating the Eagles. Brady and the Bucs have more scores to settle.

"I don't care if the Rams would have won," Brady said. "That's all right, we've still got the Eagles, and that's going to be the biggest game of our season. If we win, whoever we play, wherever we play, we're still going, and that's what we want to do."

Rick Stroud, The Tampa Times, published 10 January 2022