TAMPA, Fla. — The Panthers have done a lot of amazing things in the second half of this season.
Sunday, they fell on a guy who got used to it.
The Panthers’ playoff dreams died at the hands of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, with a 30-24 loss at Raymond James Stadium.
The short version of this one is that Brady went long.
Facing a secondary without top cornerback Jaycee Horn, Brady connected for three deep touchdowns to Mike Evans (from 63, 57 and 30 yards), and that was the difference.
Evans has Keith Taylor Jr. behind on the first and CJ Henderson on the next two, as Brady has found his mark again and again. Evans wasted a walk-away touchdown chance in Game 7 at Charlotte in Week 7, but made up for it Sunday with 10 catches for 207 yards, two shy of a career high.
With the win, the Bucs clinched the NFC South title and sent the Panthers (6-10) into an offseason full of questions (after wrapping up the season next week in New Orleans).
– It looked like Brady and the Bucs were close to putting the game away early in the third quarter.
And then, somehow, a rally sparked by defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos brought the Panthers back.
The Bucs seemed to be putting together a tidy practice, one that has already covered 90 yards in 15 plays and chewed 7:12 off the clock. This was the time they were going to retire for good and put away a Panthers team that wasn’t supposed to be here at all.
That’s when Gross-Matos blocked Ryan Succop’s 26-yard field goal attempt to hold a 14-10 lead.
All the Panthers did was respond with a 91-yard touchdown to push the lead to 21-10 after a 19-yard strike from Sam Darnold to Shi Smith.
But that’s when Brady stepped in and started making plays, like he’s done so many times.
The 45-year-old quarterback has done most of his work this year throwing short passes, but he’s shown he still has plenty of arms when he needs them.
It was a painful end to playoff hopefuls that weren’t meant to be for the Panthers. When you start 1-5, change coaches, then trade your best offensive player, you’re not meant to be here.
They went 5-5 out of the next 10 to get a factor, but couldn’t get past Brady when it mattered most.
– Darnold was good for long stretches of the day, but also committed his first, second and third turnovers of the season.
A third-quarter interception was nearly nullified by the three touchdowns he threw, but a sack fumble with 2:24 left in the game was the game-breaking one.
Anthony Nelson rounded left tackle Ikem Ekwonu to knock the ball down, and the Bucs recovered to seal the win.
The Panthers only rushed for 74 yards after hitting 320 last week, and without that balance, the Panthers haven’t been able to control the clock enough to keep Brady off the field.
– Cornerback Josh Norman played a snap in the first half, an incomplete pass to old nemesis Julio Jones.
And despite Henderson and Taylor’s struggles to cover Evans, Norman didn’t play much more in the second half, but his presence was still felt on Sunday.
On the Bucs’ first possession, a Brady completion to Chris Godwin went the other way when Panthers safety Sam Franklin Jr. hit him.
It was straight out of Charles “Peanut” Tillman’s playbook, as Norman learned from Veterans Corner in 2015. Norman spent a ton of time with the Panthers’ young defensive backs this week, and the lessons have clearly taken root.
. Panthers hopefuls playoff finish by a loss Tampa