TAMPA, Fla. -- The walk from the playing field to the locker room in Raymond James Stadium is long enough that Buccaneers coaches and players have plenty of time to think about whatever is on their mind, and on Sunday it was clear that many of them were retracing the ebb and flow of what has been a trying season.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, with sweat falling from beneath the brim of his baseball cap and a look of relief and excitement spread across his face, barked out several times to no one in particular: "It's time! It's time!"
Presumably, he was referring to both the present and the future, because after four months of starts and stops, of two-game win streaks followed by five losses in six games, then three defeats in four weeks, the Bucs on Sunday looked like the Super Bowl contender many envisioned coming into the year.
They beat the Carolina Panthers 30-24 to claim back-to-back NFC South titles for the first time in franchise history and lock up a playoff spot for the third consecutive year. They also served notice that they should not be overlooked in the hunt for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, not when Tom Brady is still behind center.
The ageless wonder matched the fifth-highest output of his 23-year career by throwing for 432 yards on 34 completions. His primary target was wideout Mike Evans, who caught each of Brady's three touchdown passes and finished with 10 receptions for 207 yards, which was two yards shy of his career high.
The scores -- which covered 63, 57 and 30 yards -- marked the return of the big play to the Tampa Bay offense and contrasted with what we have seen for much of the season when Brady made a point of getting the ball out quickly. On Sunday he held the ball just long enough to allow Evans to make plays down the field.
Was his protection better? Yes, at times. But perhaps Brady also believed it was time to go for broke, aware that a Carolina victory would have positioned the Panthers to claim the division title this coming weekend with a win over the New Orleans Saints.
So, he stood in the pocket and exploited a Carolina secondary that was without top cornerback Jaycee Horn. He took advantage of a blown coverage on one of the touchdown throws -- the corner was supposed to get help deep, but the safety bit on an underneath route -- then capitalized on one-on-one coverage against Evans, which is almost always an immediate advantage for Tampa.
If Brady and Evans are clicking, the Bucs (8-8) become a much more formidable opponent. For some reason, however, they have been out of sync throughout the year. If it wasn't Brady missing him with off-target throws, it was Evans dropping passes.
It appeared there would be more of the same to start the game, after Evans dropped what could have been a completion of at least 43 yards. But Brady kept looking for him. It was as if they were going to make it work, win or lose, because, like everyone else, they knew the partnership would have to work for Tampa Bay to have any real shot at a title run.
"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."
Evans had gone 11 consecutive games without a touchdown catch, the longest drought of his career. His three scores matched his career high, set in 2019. When he's on, the Bucs' offense is like bright lights to someone experiencing a migraine. In other words, a painful problem.
Tampa's 478 yards of offense were a season high, as were its 411 net yards passing. The big plays could not have come at a better time, not just in the sense that the Bucs were playing for the division title, but that they covered up other blemishes that pock-marked their season. Like, a lack of execution on third down (they were 4-of-15) or success in the red zone (1-of-3).
"Statistically we have not done a lot of great things this year," Brady said. "We haven't been very good on third down, in the red area, long balls, short balls -- so I think everything needs to be cleaned up. That's just the reality of where we're at."
They were in an ugly and dangerous place midway through the second quarter, trailing 14-0 against a Carolina club that seemed to be oozing confidence in part because it held Brady and Co. to just three points earlier this season, marking the only game this season in which Tampa has failed to reach the end zone.
They lost a fumble in Panthers territory on their first offensive series, gained only one first down on their second, missed a field goal on their third, then went three-and-out on their fourth. With just over two minutes to go in the first half, they had no points and only one real reason for optimism: Brady.
On first down from his own 37, Brady dropped back and launched a perfect pass down the right sideline for an Evans score. Two plays later, Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold, who had not committed a turnover in his four games this season, lost a fumble that set up a field to make it 14-10 at the half.
Carolina pushed its lead to 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, but Tampa responded with touchdowns on three of four possessions to open the final quarter, two going to Evans and the third on a one-yard Brady sneak. The final Bucs score came after the last of Darnold's three turnovers, this one a fumble.
Bottom line: The Panthers are not good enough to beat themselves and an opponent. They had won three of four in part because of ball security and a commitment to the run game. They got away from both on Sunday. Darnold came out throwing, completing each of his four pass attempts on the opening series for 60 yards and a touchdown of 17 yards to tight end Tommy Tremble.
Each time a big play needed to be made, he seemed to find wideout DJ Moore, who had six receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown through three quarters. However, the speedy playmaker was shut out in the final quarter. Still, Darnold matched his career high of 341 yards passing, completing 23 of 37 throws with three touchdowns and one interception.
"They were loading the box somewhat like Pittsburgh (in Week 15), so we had to loosen them up a little bit," coach Steve Wilks said of the offensive strategy. "I believe in taking what they give you and then coming back and being able to take what you want. I felt like at times we were able to get the ball out in open space and guys could do some things. But we shot ourselves in the foot when we turned it over."
While disappointing, the outcome should not overshadow the positive impact Wilks has made since being named interim coach in October. The Panthers (6-10) were 1-4 at the time and bottomed out at 1-5. The culture was bad, and the buy-in was as low as the expectations.
Wilks has changed that over the last two-plus months. Clearly, the players believe in him and each other. He has created a culture of accountability in which gray areas have been erased. He has a saying that he lives and coaches by: ACT of a champion. ACT is an acronym for accountability, commitment and trust. He preaches it every day of every week to his players and staff, and when things don't go right, he addresses it head on, whether you're a Pro Bowler or the 53rd player on the roster.
At the time that coach Matt Rhule was fired, owner David Tepper said Wilks would be considered for the permanent position if he did an "incredible job". It remains to be seen how Tepper defines incredible, but the case could be made that doing something no one thought possible is as good a place to start as any.
No one thought the Panthers would be in the hunt for the division title. But the fact that they were, with one week to go in the season, is a testament to Wilks and his staff. And it's why he is more than deserving of a chance to prove himself as the permanent coach.
Like so many first-time head coaches, he tried to please others when he was hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018. The tendency is to go along to get along. At times he was guilty of that. But he promised himself that he would be true to himself after agreeing to take the interim job in Carolina, and what we've seen is someone who is unflinching in following his beliefs.
He fired a couple of assistant coaches whom he felt did not fit what he wanted to accomplish. He stayed the course when the team traded running back Christian McCaffrey, its best player. He stuck with P.J. Walker as his starting quarterback while Darnold was out injured, even after Week 1 starter Baker Mayfield was healthy. And he committed to playing to his offense's strength -- the running game -- even in today's pass-happy NFL.
Some might have thought him foolish or stubborn, but the results speak for themselves. He created not only a positive culture, but a team with an identity. That should mean a lot to Tepper, who has an opportunity to avoid the trap of hiring a coach in order to generate splashy headlines instead of someone who is better equipped to win games.
On Sunday, the Bucs took time to honor a coach who not only won games, but a championship. At halftime, they inducted Bruce Arians into their Ring of Honor, where he joined 13 others. Arians led the team to a Super Bowl in the 2020 season. He was known for his "No Risk It, No Biscuit" philosophy, which featured an attacking, downfield passing game. Just like the one we witnessed on Sunday.
What that means for the Bucs going forward remains to be seen, but it was a reminder that they should not be slept on.
"When you get the opportunity to play in the tournament, anything can happen," said linebacker Lavonte David. "We're going to seize this moment. I wouldn't bet against this team at all."