Analysis: NFC is wide open heading into final weekend of NFL

Jan 1, 2023, 8:33 AM | Updated: Jan 2, 2023, 8:28 am

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans scores in front of Carolina Panthers cornerback CJ He...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans scores in front of Carolina Panthers cornerback CJ Henderson during the second half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tom Brady again was at his best when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed him most.

The 45-year-old, seven-time Super Bowl champion had one of the best statistical games of his 23-year career in a 30-24 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday that clinched Tampa’s second straight NFC South title.

Another old quarterback who also wears No. 12 is one way win away from joining Brady in the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay Packers routed Minnesota 41-17 for their fourth straight win. One more next week at home against Detroit secures a wild-card spot that seemed improbable when the Packers were 4-8.

On a day when the NFC’s top teams struggled, the Buccaneers (8-8) and Packers (8-8) were victorious in must-win games and proved they can’t be counted out despite mediocre records.

“Playoffs start a clean slate for everybody,” Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles said. “You’ve got a three-game elimination tournament and it doesn’t matter where you are.”

Brady rekindled his connection to Mike Evans, hitting the four-time Pro Bowl receiver in stride three times for touchdown passes of 63, 57 and 30 yards. He finished 34 of 45 for 432 yards, tying the fifth-highest output in his career.

“Mike played awesome, like he always does,” Brady said. “I love playing out there with him and he’s an amazing player. I’ve missed him too many times this year, so it was nice to connect with him and hopefully we can keep that going. I think we will.”

Brady became the first player in league history to complete at least 30 passes in five consecutive games and the first player with at least 30 completions in 10 games within a single season. His completion percentage of 75.6% was his highest in a game with at least 45 pass attempts in his career.

Evans had 10 catches for 207 yards to surpass 1,000 yards receiving for the ninth straight season, extending his own NFL record to begin a career.

“Tom was just dropping dimes,” Evans said. “Those were some really, really good balls. One of the best games I’ve seen Tom play since he has been here. They were falling right in the breadbasket every time. He had an unbelievable game.”

Brady has now led the Buccaneers to three comeback wins when trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter, including two in a row.

With Brady and Evans back in sync and Tampa’s defense playing tough, the Buccaneers are a dangerous team in the playoffs.

Same for Rodgers and the Packers.

A ball-hawking defense helped Green Bay dismantle NFC North champion Minnesota. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander and the secondary held star receiver Justin Jefferson to just one catch. Rodgers was efficient, Aaron Jones ran for 111 yards and the defense forced four turnovers, including a pick-6 by Darnell Savage.

Now, after several outcomes around the league went their way over the past few weeks, the Packers just have to beat the Lions (8-8) to get in.

“I know not many people in that locker room and definitely not many of you people believed we’d be sitting here at 8-8 with control of our own destiny going into Week 18,” Rodgers said. “That’s pretty special.”

Suddenly, the NFC seems wide open after the Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) lost their second straight game without Jalen Hurts, the Vikings (12-4) were blown out and the San Francisco 49ers (12-4) needed overtime to beat Las Vegas after surrendering 500 yards to Jarrett Stidham and the Raiders’ offense.

The Eagles would secure the No. 1 seed with a win over the playoff-bound New York Giants (9-6-1), who are locked into the sixth seed. The Dallas Cowboys (12-4) need a win over Washington and Philadelphia to lose to overtake the Eagles.

Anything is possible in the NFL this season.


Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi


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

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Analysis: NFC is wide open heading into final weekend of NFL