When Tom Brady lobbed a touchdown pass to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski late in the Buccaneers’ 46-23 win over the Panthers on Sunday, it was as if he was running a Madden video game franchise and aiming to pad the stats of as many of his receivers as possible.
Tampa Bay was already up by 16 points with under five minutes remaining. Outside of Gronkowski, each of the team’s high-profile offensive players had put up strong numbers. Brady ensured his oldest friend on the roster would get camera time before the contest concluded.
The palate-cleansing victory, which came after a 38-3 loss to the Saints, demonstrated how Brady can keep his array of pass catchers happy after the group was bolstered further by the signing of Antonio Brown a couple of weeks ago. Brady completed throws to eight different targets and spread his trio of touchdown strikes to Gronkowski, Mike Evans and Cameron Brate.
Brady managed to build his rapport with Brown within the flow of the Buccaneers’ offense, a development that will be important in upcoming games against the Rams and Chiefs. Brown made seven catches for 69 yards and finished second on the team in targets.
“Everyone’s bonding,” Brown said after the game. “Camaraderie everywhere. … It’s just a glimpse of the team we have. So many talented guys in that huddle.”
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Brown was not the focal point of Tampa Bay’s offense on Sunday — Mike Evans was the go-to option in key situations — but he did make a couple of huge third-down catches in the fourth quarter to help the Buccaneers pull away.
The second of those grabs went for 25 yards. It exemplified Brown’s best qualities and suggested he hasn’t fallen off after missing a year of NFL action because of suspension.
Every performance by Brady this season has been treated as a referendum on his skill set at this stage of his career. His three-interception clunker last weekend led to loud criticism. He went 28 of 39 through the air against the Panthers for 341 yards, which will probably lead to a complete reversal of his narrative in the days ahead.
But the future playoff success of the Buccaneers this year will probably depend less on Brady being perfect than the receivers around him being at the top of their respective games. After steamrolling Carolina, coach Bruce Arians said Brady missed several open passes that could have made his stat line even better. Brady agreed with that assessment.
Occasional errant throws by Brady matter far less if Brown and company are engaged and hauling in everything in their orbits. Reading coverage and spreading the ball around is more important for the 43-year-old right now than precision.
The full potential of the NFL’s most talented receiving corps started to be realized on Sunday, and if the trend continues, the NFC South could still be in play for Tampa Bay.