Tampa Bay Buccaneers Clinch NFC South but Carolina Panthers’ Future With Sam Darnold May Be Brighter

    Tom Brady clinched the division and a playoff spot after the Buccaneers beat Carolina 30-21, but the Panthers and Sam Darnold may have a stronger future.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers Clinch NFC South but Carolina Panthers’ Future With Sam Darnold May Be Brighter

    Tom Brady narrowly avoided missing the playoffs for the first time in 20 years after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Carolina Panthers 30-21. A two-score game that didn’t feature a lead from the Buccaneers until the fourth quarter, it looked much more like this would end up being a Panthers win until the final moments.

    With 6:47 left in the fourth quarter, Brady heaved a perfect deep pass to Mike Evans, who made up for several early-season struggles, not just with that 30-yard touchdown but the whole of his 10-catch, 207-yard performance — one that featured two additional scores on top of his final touchdown to put the team ahead.

    That hat trick from Evans drove the passing performance just as much as Brady did, but having Chris Godwin put up 120 yards didn’t hurt either.

    Bucs Clinch but Tom Brady Has Struggled All Season

    Brady has been buoyed by a strong defense all year, but he couldn’t turn that into consistent wins early in the season. Entering the game, Brady ranked 20th among all quarterbacks in EPA per play and 24th when including defensive penalties.

    That didn’t matter on Sunday, when Brady lit up the box score with 9.6 yards per attempt through the air to finish with 432 passing yards and three touchdowns, adding in a rushing touchdown with a signature quarterback sneak.

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    The Buccaneers’ defense didn’t exactly smother the Panthers’ offense in this game but, like Brady, came through in the clutch. Late strip-sacks and interceptions set up Tampa Bay to put away a game they had no right to even be in. And it helped make up for some mistakes from the special-teams unit — missed or blocked kicks, ineligible downfield penalties, and so on.

    Sam Darnold Could Be the Answer for the Panthers

    Carolina saw an up-and-down performance from Sam Darnold, who had been on a tear of games where he was among the league leaders in expected points per play and completion rate over expected since becoming the starter in Week 12.

    Darnold threw some impressive passes and made some incredible plays — a scramble out of a sure sack after the two-minute warning that resulted in a conversion after passing to Chuba Hubbard comes to mind — but a bad pick and some other errant throws cut short his chances of fighting for the division lead and a playoff spot.

    It’s not as if Darnold, on balance, played poorly. He finished with 9.22 yards per passing attempt and a fantastic success rate of 58%. Darnold has made a strong case to compete for a starting position next year, regardless of who coaches the Panthers next year. Should head coach Steve Wilks retain the job, Darnold should be the favorite despite the return of third-round rookie Matt Corral from injury.

    Carolina Might Be NFC South Favorites Next Year

    The long-term future of the Panthers is all that matters at this point after their elimination from the playoffs. But despite the rocky results on defense, it doesn’t look as bad as it did five weeks ago.

    There might be something in Darnold, and Carolina will return Jaycee Horn from injury soon. On top of that, they’ll also have fellow corner Donte Jackson back and still have two high-level defensive linemen in Brian Burns and Derrick Brown.

    The Panthers will still need to make good in the draft, and there’s still the question of whether they’ll retain Wilks as head coach, but there’s something to salvage there in what looks to be a weak NFC South next year.

    The weakness of the division is why the Buccaneers even had their shot at making the playoffs in the first place. It could be the case that things turn around in the division.

    The Buccaneers could find new consistency with a different head coach, or the Saints and/or Falcons could find a quarterback. But for now, with the prospect of Brady leaving Tampa Bay, the Panthers may have proven in a loss that they could be favorites next year.

    Arif Hasan is an NFL reporter and analyst for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Arif’s work here and follow him on Twitter: @ArifHasanNFL.