TAMPA, Fla. (AP)Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed back to the playoffs, confident they’re still capable of making this a special season.

Brady threw for 432 yards and three long touchdowns to Mike Evans, and Bucs (8-8) erased a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit for the second week in a row to clinch their second straight NFC South championship with a 30-24 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

”Every year you try to win the division and we won the division. It doesn’t matter how you win the division. My heart ain’t got much left in it, but it feels great,” coach Todd Bowles said. ”We’re in one spot we need to be. We can’t get where we want to be unless we win the division. We won the division.”

Evans finished with 10 catches for 207 yards, scoring on receptions of 63, 57, and 30 yards and becoming the first player in NFL history to begin a career with nine consecutive seasons with 1,000-plus yards receiving.

The TDs were first for Evans since Oct. 2 – a stretch of 12 games – and hiked his season total to six after scoring 14 times in 2021 and 13 two years ago, when Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl.

”We’ve battled through a lot of tough things this year,” Brady said. ”Happy to win the division. It’s always tough to do it. NFL games are tough to win and we always figure out a way to keep them somehow exciting. I wish they wouldn’t be as exciting as we made them.”

The Panthers (6-10) led 14-0 early and 21-10 after Sam Darnold’s third TD pass of the day, 10 seconds into the fourth quarter.

It was all Bucs from there, with Evans beating cornerback C.J. Henderson for touchdowns twice and Darnold losing a fumble on a sack inside his own 10. That turnover set up Brady’s 1-yard TD sneak, which put the game out of reach with 1:58 left.

The Bucs can finish the regular season with a winning record by beating Atlanta on the road next weekend. As division champs, they are assured of beginning the playoffs with a home game in two weeks.

”The playoffs start a clean slate for everybody,” Bowles said. ”You’ve got a three-game elimination tournament. Doesn’t matter where you are. … At least we know we’ll be in the games. We just have to cut down on the mistakes in order to win them.”

The Panthers, who had won four of six to climb back into playoff contention after firing coach Matt Rhule and trading star running back Christian McCaffrey, could have clinched their first NFC South title since 2015 by beating the Bucs and then winning at New Orleans.

Instead, they wound up missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year. Among the priorities entering the offseason will be determining the future of interim coach Steve Wilks, as well as Darnold, who will be an unrestricted free agent.

”Obviously we knew what we were playing for. … We were right there,” Darnold said. ”At the end, we just couldn’t get it done.”

Darnold threw for 341 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He also lost two fumbles while falling to 3-2 since becoming Carolina’s starter on Thanksgiving weekend.

A week after rushing for 320 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-23 victory over Detroit, the Panthers rode Darnold’s arm to their early 14-0 lead and were in complete control until Brady found Evans racing up the right sideline for 63-yard catch-and-run to get the Bucs going.

Two plays later, Darnold mishandled a snap in shotgun formation and compounded the mistake by whiffing when he tried to pick up the ball, leaving linebacker Devin White to recover the fumble at the Carolina 13.

Ryan Succop’s 22-yard field goal trimmed Tampa Bay’s deficit to 14-10 just before halftime, but the Bucs wasted an opportunity to pull closer – or possibly take the lead – when a 90-yard drive stalled inside the Panthers 10 and Succop had a 26-yard field-goal attempt blocked.

Darnold completed 23 of 37 passes with TDs of 17 yards to Tommy Tremble, 24 yards to D.J. Moore and 19 yards to Shi Smith, the last putting Carolina up 21-10. The Panthers, meanwhile, rushed for just 74 yards as D’Onta Foreman was limited to 35 yards on 13 carries and Chuba Hubbard was held to 20 yards on five attempts.

”Very frustrating. We worked hard to get to this position. Nobody was going to hand us anything or give us anything,” Foreman said.

”We fought hard. Nobody gave up. Everybody knew what the task was,” Foreman added. ”Unfortunately that’s part of the NFL. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”

RING OF HONOR

Retired coach Bruce Arians, who helped recruit Brady before leading Tampa Bay to its second Super Bowl championship two years ago, was inducted into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony.

Arians is the latest addition to a select group that includes Hall of Famers Tony Dungy, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Lee Roy Selmon, as well as Ronde Barber, Mike Alstott, Doug Williams, Jimmie Giles, John McKay, Paul Gruber, Monte Kiffin and Malcolm Glazer.

INJURIES

Panthers: Played without top CB Jaycee Horn (broken wrist), leaving Henderson to try to cover Evans much of the day.

Buccaneers: CB Carlton Davis (shoulder) and LB Carl Nassib (pectoral) were inactive. Rookie RB Rachaad White left the game with what appeared to be a hand injury but returned in the fourth quarter.

UP NEXT

Panthers: Regular season finale at New Orleans next Sunday.

Buccaneers: At Atlanta next weekend.

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