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Rapid Reactions: Panthers' playoff hopes end with 30-24 loss in Tampa

Mike Evans

TAMPA, Fla. — The Panthers have done many amazing things in the second half of this season.

Sunday, they ran into a guy who has made a habit of it.

The Panthers' playoff dreams died at the hand of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, with a 30-24 loss at Raymond James Stadium.

The short version of this one is Brady went long.

Facing a secondary without top cornerback Jaycee Horn, Brady connected for three deep touchdowns to Mike Evans (from 63, 57, and 30 yards), and that was the difference.

Evans got behind Keith Taylor Jr. on the first one, and CJ Henderson on the next two, as Brady found his mark again and again. Evans dropped a walk-in touchdown chance in the first game in Charlotte in Week 7, but made up for it Sunday with 10 catches for 207 yards, two short of a career high.

With the win, the Bucs clinched the NFC South title, and sent the Panthers (6-10) into an offseason full of questions (after they wrap up the season next week in New Orleans).

— It looked like Brady and the Bucs were about to put away the game early in the third quarter.

And then, somehow, a rally sparked by defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos brought the Panthers back.

The Bucs appeared to be putting together a put-it-away drive, one that already covered 90 yards over 15 plays and chewed 7:12 off the clock. It was the moment they were going to pull away for good and put away a Panthers team that wasn't supposed to be here at all.

That's when Gross-Matos blocked Ryan Succop's 26-yard field goal attempt, to preserve a 14-10 lead.

All the Panthers did was respond with a 91-yard touchdown drive of their own to push the lead to 21-10 after a 19-yard strike from Sam Darnold to Shi Smith.

But that's when Brady stepped up and started making plays, as he has done so many times.

The 45-year-old quarterback has done most of his work this year throwing short passes, but he showed he still has plenty of arm when he needs it.

It was a painful end to the playoff hopes that weren't supposed to be for the Panthers. When you start 1-5, with a coaching change, and then trade your best offensive player, you're not supposed to be here.

They went 5-5 over the next 10 to make themselves a factor, but couldn't push past Brady when it mattered most.

— Darnold was good for large stretches of the day, but also committed his first, second, and third turnovers of the season.

A third-quarter interception was almost canceled out by the three touchdowns he threw, but a sack-fumble with 2:24 left in the game was decisive.

Anthony Nelson got around left tackle Ikem Ekwonu to knock the ball loose, and the Bucs recovered to salt away the win.

The Panthers only managed 74 yards on the ground after going for 320 last week, and without that balance, the Panthers weren't able to control enough clock to keep Brady off the field.

— Cornerback Josh Norman played one snap in the first half, an incomplete pass to his old nemesis Julio Jones.

And despite the struggles of Henderson and Taylor to cover Evans, Norman didn't play much more in the second half, but his presence was still felt Sunday.

On the Bucs' first possession, a Brady completion to Chris Godwin went the other way when Panthers safety Sam Franklin Jr. punched it out.

It was straight out of the Charles "Peanut" Tillman playbook, the way Norman learned it from the veteran corner in 2015. Norman spent a ton of time with the Panthers young defensive backs this week, and the lessons clearly took hold.

View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on New Years Day.

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