QUEEN CITY NEWS – Tom Brady and Tampa Bay clinched the NFC South division title Sunday and dimmed the lights on any playoff possibilities the Panthers had in mind, defeating Carolina 30-24 at Raymond James Stadium.
With the win over the Panthers, Brady secures an incredible nineteenth career divisional title.
“You can’t win against a quarterback like that turning the ball over,” Panthers coach Steve Wilks said after the loss. “They made all the plays today, give those guys all the credit. We didn’t play smart.”
Late in the 4th quarter, a missed block by rookie Ickey Ekwonu on Sam Darnold’s blindside resulted in a sack on Darnold, who then fumbled and had it recovered by the Bucs on the Carolina 3-yard line. The Bucs would punch it in for a 30-21 lead.
“We gotta protect the football.”
Brady and Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans scored on two dynamic, back-to-back long-distance connections in the 4th quarter giving Tampa its first lead of the game.
Brady and Tampa (8-8) seemed to be on the cusp of scoring late in the 3rd and stealing back momentum the Panthers (6-10) built up. Carolina’s defense held them to a 4th-down field goal attempt, which was blocked by Yetur Gross-Matos. Darnold came out for the next sequence and tossed a 47-yard bomb to DJ Moore. He then connected on a 19-yard TD pass with Shi Smith for a commanding 21-7 lead.
“All credit to them for the way they played,” Darnold said in the postgame news conference. “Obviously the fumble at the end of the second half gave them the momentum.”
Darnold came out sharp to start the game, a consistent theme over the past few weeks. Darnold converted two first downs on a 75-yard drive culminating with a perfectly executed pass to Tommy Tremble in the endzone.
Brady and the Bucs looked like they were going to respond on the next sequence when safety Sam Franklin punched the ball out of the hands of Chris Godwin and the Panthers recovered the fumble.
“We always go out there with the mindset of executing, protecting Sam the best you can,” center Bradley Bozeman told Queen City News afterward on the field. “We’ve been fighting for each other all season and gonna continue to do that next week.”
Moore first made his mark in the 2nd quarter, giving the Panthers a 14-0 lead after a 24-yard catch from Sam Darnold. Brady and Evans would respond with a TD, cutting its losses before halftime.
Brady finished with 432 yards and 3 TDs and no turnovers while Darnold threw for 341 yards and 3 TDs with 1 turnover. Moore led the team in receiving yards with 117 on 6 catches.
Josh Norman, in his second stint with Carolina after being signed last week to fill in for the injured Jaycee Horn, saw some action in the 4th quarter, however, Wilks said during a weekly news conference he wasn’t comfortable with Norman’s game shape.
The Panthers will play their final game of the season next Sunday in New Orleans.