Tom Brady sets up Antonio Brown for big return vs. Carolina Panthers

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“Any idea Tom Brady would throw 15 balls to Antonio Brown today?” I asked Bruce Arians after the Bucs trounced Carolina 32-6.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Arians said. “That’s who we had today, and if they were going to play single-high coverage, there was never a doubt in my mind.”

Of all the amazing stats in Week 16, Brown, after sitting since Oct. 14, catching 10 balls and being targeted 15 times by Brady, would be right up there. But last week, the Bucs lost their top back, Leonard Fournette, for a few weeks with a hamstring injury; top wideout Chris Godwin for the season with an ACL tear; and wideout Mike Evans with a hamstring. Brady targeted Godwin, Evans and Fournette a combined 63 times in Weeks 13 and 14. Their replacements this week—running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and receivers Brown and Cyril Grayson—were targeted two times collectively in Weeks 13 and 14.

Godwin’s gone for the year. Evans will be ready to return, at the latest, by the playoffs. Fournette’s hamstring is more severe than Evans’, and Arians is making no promises about his playoff fate.

This left the Bucs is dire straits entering the last three weeks of the season. Luckily for them, they were slated to play Carolina, the Jets and Carolina again to close the season. Sunday’s game was a gimme, relatively. But it left a big question for Arians to answer: After he told the media (including me) 14 months ago that Brown would be gone with one more off-field screwup, Arians and the Bucs relented this year. Instead of making an example of Brown, they let him stay, and Sunday in Charlotte was Brown’s first chance to pay the franchise back for its loyalty.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers
Bucs receiver Antonio Brown. (Getty Images)

So Brady’s first, second, third and seventh passes were to Brown. As long as Brown can stay healthy, that trend should continue—even if Tampa will have to answer the same questions over and over about why the franchise kept Brown after he faked his vaccination card to pass the NFL Covid strictures.

“When you and I talked last year,” Arians told me post-game, “we were talking on old experiences with Antonio. When he came back to us, he was a model citizen. There was a new history. I really loved the way he tried to fit in, worked his way in and gave us everything he had to go to the Super Bowl. My whole attitude on him changed. I saw him trying to be a better human being. So I’ve got a totally different relationship than when it was when you and I talked last year.”

I asked Arians if he thinks there’s a lot more out there like Brown who faked the card, but simply haven’t been caught. I wondered how he felt about the NFL’s pursuit of other players using fake cards.

“Yes and no,” he said. “I mean, the NFL’s gonna get their games played. That’s the bottom line.”

So Arians, clearly, hopes that story goes away down the stretch. The Bucs look like they could finish as the second seed if they win out (at Jets, home to Panthers). That means they’d play a wild-card game at home, and if they win, then a divisional game at home. Then Aaron Rodgers, perhaps, awaits.

“If we get four, five of our injured guys back, I feel great,” Arians said. “We’re gonna play at home. We could end up the two. The only place we have to go is back to Green Bay. I feel real good. And I feel good because we have our quarterback. As long as we have our offensive line and our quarterback, I feel real good.”

If I were Arians, I’d feel a lot better with Evans and Fournette back in the lineup.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column