TAMPA, Fla. — The Panthers have done a lot of great things in the second half of this season.
On Sunday they ran into a man who made it a habit.
The Panthers’ playoff dreams were lost at the hands of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in a 30-24 loss at Raymond James Stadium.
A shorter version of this was Brady lengthened.
Facing a secondary without top cornerback Jaycee Horn, Brady connected three deep touchdowns (from 63, 57 and 30 yards) to Mike Evans and that was the difference.
As Brady found his mark again and again, Evans fell behind Keith Taylor Jr. in the first and CJ Henderson in the next two. Although he missed a walk-in touchdown chance in the first game of 2018, he was two short of a career-high for 207 yards on 10 catches on Sunday.
The win gave the Bucks the NFC South title and sent the Panthers (6-10) into a questionable offseason (after they wrap up the season in New Orleans next week).
— Brady and the Bucks appeared to be trying to put the game away early in the third quarter.
And somehow, a rally caused by defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos brought the Panthers back to life.
The Bucks had already covered 90 yards in 15 plays and appeared to be putting together a drive that would bite 7:12 off the clock. That was the moment they completely pulled away and were trying to clean up a Panthers team that wasn’t supposed to be here.
Then Grossmatos blocked Ryan Sacop’s 26-yard field goal attempt to keep the lead 14-10.
All the Panthers did was push the lead to 21–10 with a 91-yard touchdown drive after a 19-yard strike from Sam Darnold to Si Smith.
But that’s when Brady stepped up and started playing. he has done so many times.
The 45-year-old quarterback has done most of his work this year throwing short passes, but has shown he still has plenty of arm when he needs it.
It was a painful end to an unexpected playoff hope for the Panthers. If you changed your coaching and started 1-5 and traded your best offensive player, you shouldn’t be here.
They went on to win the next ten games 5-5, but were unable to overtake Brady in the moments that mattered most.
— Darnold was well suited for a long day of play, but he also made his first, second and third turnover of the season.
An interception in the third quarter was nearly canceled by three touchdowns he threw, but a sack fumble with 2:24 remaining in the game was decisive.
Anthony Nelson missed the ball past left tackle Ykem Ekwonu and the Bucks recovered to take the win.
The Panthers could only manage 74 yards on the ground after gaining 320 yards last week, and without that balance, the Panthers couldn’t control the clock enough to keep Brady off the field.
— Cornerback Josh Norman played one snap in the first half.
Norman played no further in the second half as Henderson and Taylor struggled to cover for Evans, but his presence was still felt on Sunday.
On the Bucks’ first possession, Brady’s completion to Chris Godwin went the opposite direction when Panthers safety Sam Franklin Jr. punched out.
It came straight out of Charles “Peanuts” Tillman’s playbook, as Norman learned from his veteran corner in 2015.