Brady, Bucs rout Panthers 32-6 to clinch NFC South title

Dec 25, 2021, 11:32 PM | Updated: Dec 26, 2021, 3:26 pm
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones celebrates after scoring against the Carolina Panthe...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones celebrates after scoring against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

(AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — As Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians watched Antonio Brown go through practice last week, he could tell the veteran wide receiver was in great shape and had some fresh legs.

Brown felt it too, telling his coach “Whatever you need, I’m there.”

Turns out that was quite a bit.

Tom Brady threw for 232 yards and a touchdown and Brown made a grand return to the NFL on Sunday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers routed the Carolina Panthers 32-6 to win their first NFC South title since 2007.

“We haven’t had one of those division banners for a long time,” Arians said. “It feels great. This is what we focused on: winning the division. I can’t be more proud of the group than I am today.”

The Bucs (11-4) put up 391 yards on offense after being shut out 9-0 by the New Orleans Saints last week.

Brown saw a prominent role on offense with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin sidelined by injuries, catching 10 passes for 101 yards while being targeted 15 times by Brady in his first game since Oct. 13.

He repeatedly made big catches in a featured role against 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore to move the chains early in the game.

“It’s what I do,” Brown said. “It’s my job. It’s what I’m on the team for.”

“He’s been itching to get back out there,” Brady said of Brown, a player he helped persuade to come to Tampa Bay last year. “And he’s just putting himself in a position to succeed. He makes a lot of critical plays. It was a great performance by him.”

Brown has been plagued by an ankle injury and was suspended three games for breaking COVID-19 protocols prior. He was unapologetic about the suspension and refused to elaborate on the details surrounding what happened.

“I can’t control what people write, how people try to frame me or bring me down,” Brown said. “Life is about persevering and doing what’s right. … I’m standing here humble and grateful and thankful and excited being around a great win with my teammates.”

Brown’s return was huge for the Bucs, who proved they can win even with many of their top weapons out.

Ronald Jones replaced the injured Leonard Fournette and carried 20 times for 65 yards and a touchdown.

Tampa Bay also got big offensive contributions from unheralded players like Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who ran for a 55-yard touchdown, and Cyril Grayson, a COVID-19 replacement player elevated to the active roster this week who hauled in a 62-yard reception to set up Brady’s only TD pass, a 4-yarder to Cameron Brate.

“Different guys who haven’t had as many opportunities made a lot of great plays,” Brady said. “AB (Brown) played great just like he always does. We needed it with Mike out, Chris out. … Our line played great. Our backs played really well. We’ve got to keep finding ways to win.”

The Bucs’ defense had no problems shutting down Carolina’s dual-quarterback approach, even after Pro Bowl linebacker Shaquil Barrett left with a knee injury in the second quarter.

Tampa Bay had seven sacks and limited the Panthers (5-10) to two field goals.

Cam Newton started the game split reps with Sam Darnold at quarterback as coach Matt Rhule had promised last week.

But neither QB produced.

Newton was 7 of 13 for 61 yards and ran for 42 yards en route to losing his 13th straight game as a Carolina starter, a streak that dates back to the 2018 season. Darnold, who was greeted by boos as he entered the game for the first time, finished 15 of 33 for 190 yards.

Rhule said he felt going with two QBs gave his team the best chance to win, before adding “giving up seven sacks, you aren’t going to win many games like that.”

The Panthers fell to 10-21 in two seasons under Rhule, who heard chants of “Fire Rhule” during the game and was booed as he walked off the field after the game.

Rhule said he understands the fans’ frustrations and said he appreciates their passion. He apologized for the lack of winning but promised better times are ahead, saying “I believe 1000% the process is working.”

INJURIES

Buccaneers: Arians said after the game Barrett had a mild MCL sprain in his knee, but wouldn’t say how long he will be out.

Panthers: Stephon Gilmore became the latest Carolina cornerback to get hit by the injury bug, leaving in the second half with a groin injury. … WR Brandon Zylstra was placed on the COVID-19 list before the game.

UP NEXT

Buccaneers: at the New York Jets next Sunday.

Panthers: at New Orleans next Sunday.

___

More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Jordan Spieth reacts to his putt on the 15th green during their foursomes match at the Presidents C...
Associated Press

For International team, tie feels like win in Presidents Cup

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The International team battled to a draw Saturday morning in the Presidents Cup. The way this week has gone, it almost felt like a win. The Korean duo of Tom Kim and K.H. Lee won two late holes and closed out Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns on the 17th […]
1 day ago
Team Europe's Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, celebrates with Roger Federer of Switzerland, after winn...
Associated Press

Federer Laver Cup fill-in, Berrettini, beats Auger-Aliassime

LONDON (AP) — Filling in for the retired Roger Federer at the Laver Cup, 2021 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini put Team Europe back in front by edging Team World’s Felix Auger-Aliassime 7-6 (11), 4-6, 10-7 on Saturday. Federer closed his career at the team event founded by his management company on Friday night. The 20-time […]
1 day ago
FILE - Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde (23) is carted off the field during an NFL football game on ...
Associated Press

Agent: Bills S Micah Hyde to go on season-ending IR

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — The agent for Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde announced Saturday that the team plans to place the starter on season-ending injured reserve because of a neck injury. Jack Bechta added in a message posted on Twitter that he expects Hyde to be healthy in returning for next season. Hyde already […]
1 day ago
FILE - Floyd Mayweather Jr. stands in the ring before an exhibition boxing match against Logan Paul...
Associated Press

Mayweather says Japanese fans will ‘see the old pretty boy’

TOKYO (AP) — The undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. says Japanese fans will be able to “see a glimpse of the old pretty boy” when he fights the Manny Pacquiao-trained Mikuru Asakura in a three-round exhibition on Sunday. The 45-year-old Mayweather told reporters on Saturday that he is in good condition for the clash with Asakura, […]
1 day ago
South Korea's Kang Leeseul looks to pass the ball past Bosnia and Herzegovina's Andela Delic during...
Associated Press

Kang helps South Korea wins 1st World Cup game in 12 years

SYDNEY (AP) — Leesuel Kang scored 37 points to help South Korea rout Bosnia and Herzegovina 99-66 on Saturday, giving the Asian country its first win in the women’s World Cup in 12 years. South Korea (1-2), which has played in 16 consecutive World Cups — tied with the U.S. for most ever — hadn’t […]
1 day ago
United States players are congratulated by China following their game at the women's Basketball Wor...
Associated Press

Wilson, Gray lead US to 77-63 win over China in World Cup

SYDNEY (AP) — A’ja Wilson admitted she was tired. The WNBA MVP had just gotten to Australia less than 24 hours ago, fresh off a championship and the U.S. was playing its toughest opponent of the World Cup. After a slow start, Wilson was clutch in the fourth quarter, finishing with 20 points to help […]
1 day ago
Brady, Bucs rout Panthers 32-6 to clinch NFC South title