Fri, 27 May 2022

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mike Evans added a postseason mark to his array of team records and Antoine Winfield, Jr. filled a dual role for a stifling defense...Carmen Vitali and Scott Smith make their suggestions for this week's Game Ball vote/ by Scott Smith & Carmen Vitali

Who deserves the Game Ball for the Bucs' dominant Wild Card win over Philadelphia? Click here to vote!

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kept their Super Bowl repeat hopes alive on Sunday with a 31-15 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles that was somehow more dominant than that score would suggest. The Eagles didn't score until the fourth quarter after the Buccaneers had built a 31-point lead and were merely trying to run out the clock.

Four different Buccaneers found the end zone in that 31-0 start, with running backs Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard each running one in in the first half. In the third quarter, Tom Brady put the game out of reach with touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans, with both scoring opportunities created by takeaways. The Bucs won the turnover battle, 3-0, thanks to interceptions by Mike Edwards and Shaquil Barrett and a fumble recovery by Ross Cockrell on a muffed punt.

A dominant defensive performance, a 115.2 passer rating for Brady and what Head Coach Bruce Arians called the Bucs' best special teams performance of the year...that makes for a full-team win and maybe a difficult choice for this week's fan-decided Game Ball.

Still, we came up with four choices, two each on offense and defense, which seems appropriate. As we have all season, Carmen and I will be offering one suggestion each for this week's award. You then get to vote and you'll even qualify to win some cool prizes if you do. See the bottom of this article for all of that. Since we are not allowed to pick the same player, the order of selection sometimes matters and it's my turn to go first.

So, who should get this week's Game Ball? Here are our suggestions.

Scott Smith: WR Mike Evans

It's a beautiful thing, watching Tom Brady - his once-endless array of offensive weapons seriously depleted - put the ball into Mike Evans' hands because, basically, that's what he has to do. Last week, it was seven targets producing six catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Carolina. This week, it was 10 targets for nine connections, 117 yards and a score. That is remarkable efficiency.

Evans set a Buccaneers single-game playoff record with his nine grabs. His 117 yards were only two shy of the team's record in the postseason, but don't feel sorry for him. The record is already in his name after he got 119 yards against Washington last January. The Wild Card round seems to suit him well.

Evans' first catch of the game was a nice eight-yard grab on third-and-seven on the game's opening drive, as he caught the ball short of the sticks but powered through a chase tackle to get past the sticks. Bernard would eventually score to give the Bucs a 7-0 lead. Later in the first quarter, Evans caught consecutive passes of 16 and eight yards to get the ball down to the Eagles' six; Vaughn would score a few plays later. Evans' 17-yard catch in the third quarter set up Gronkowski's touchdown from the two. But all of that is just a bunch of appetizers for his biggest play.

After Gronkowski's score made it 24-0 midway through the third quarter, the Eagles got the ball close to midfield and then, with time running thing, chose to go for it on fourth-and-three. Jalen Hurts was chased into a desperate situation and tried to float a rainbow downfield to DeVonta Smith. Shaq Barrett, who had dropped into coverage, leaped up to bat the ball in the air and then hauled it in, setting him up for a 17-yard return to the Eagles' 36. That's when Brady and Evans slipped in the dagger. After the game, Evans said Brady adjusted his route when they got to the line of scrimmage. Good call. Evans ended up crossing deep from right to left and Brady threw a perfect pass that the receiver caught at the 12. Safety Rodney McLeod tried to make a diving leg tackle but Evans stepped out of it, tip-toed up the sideline and then somersaulted over the goal line.

It's that last bit that seals it for me. Evans is generally a pretty stoic person and he's constantly lauded (including after Sunday's game) for being an unselfish guy and a team player. The emotion that drove him to uncharacteristically flip into the end zone rather than jog over the line encapsulated the way the Bucs were feeling all throughout Sunday afternoon. Evans was the single biggest yardage gainer for the Bucs on Sunday, he set a single-game record for catches and he found a way to succinctly express the team's collective joy. Give him the Game Ball.

Carmen Vitali: S Antoine Winfield Jr.

Far be it from me to ever argue against accolades for Evans. And you're right - that somersault into the end zone was a rare sight indeed. In a league where flash is king, Evans is the 'do your job' kinda guy, who is always dodging my pleas for social media content because he just doesn't like attention like that.

But in that moment, Evans was all of us. Ever the selfless player, he even flipped the ball to Donovan Smith so the big man could spike it in the end zone. It was an all-around flipping good time.

My only move here is then to ask you to consider what made this 'football is fun' moment possible. The offense had the flash but the reason the Bucs were comfortably in the lead and the reason they had that possession in the first place was the defense. Now, Shaq Barrett may have made the play of the year, according to Mike Evans himself. Scott briefly mentioned that above when talking about the one-handed tip-to-pick for the outside linebacker in coverage that set up Evans' touchdown. But what about some of the more consistent characters flying under the radar from a defensive performance that allowed the number one rushing offense just 44 yards on the ground through the first three quarters?

And they did it with some guys out of position again. All week it looked like the Bucs would FINALLY have their original starting defense on the field for the first time all season but when cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting's hamstring decided not to cooperate, that left the secondary scrambling again. The Bucs opened in their nickel defense with five defensive backs on the field, anyway, but it was safety Antoine Winfield Jr. who occupied the slot. It left Mike Edwards and Jordan Whitehead as the two safeties on the field with Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean on the outside. Winfield has gotten some work at nickel throughout the past couple seasons, but it's been far from consistent and mostly just in special packages. Heck, the Bucs even busted out their dime package with six defensive backs, putting FOUR safeties on the field after adding Andrew Adams. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts was forced into throwing the ball a very uncharacteristic 43 times in the game, which is exactly what they wanted despite being down a DB. It was clearly not sustainable for Philly. Hurts had just a 53.5% completion percentage and failed to put points on the board for the first three quarters. He was one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league going into the game thanks to a combo of a veteran offensive line and his own mobility but that didn't stop Winfield, who recorded a sack for the second game in a row, and his first ever in a postseason game. He was flying all around from that nickel position and for a guy who hadn't practiced there all week, that's an incredible feat.

I should also mention that when the Bucs were in their base package - Winfield went right back to his normal safety spot. And why yes, that does mean he played 100% of the team's defensive snaps. All 66 of them.

The defense came out and made a statement, which not only gave the offense extra possessions thanks to the three turnovers they forced but gave them the ability to be aggressive right off the bat. So, in the end, you can be like Mike Evans is usually and instead of favoring the flash (which in this case IS Evans, I guess) and go with the less flashy but no less important phase of the ball for the award.

Who deserves the Game Ball for the Bucs' dominant Wild Card win over Philadelphia? Click here to vote!

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