TAMPA, Fla. -- Wanting an explosive start Saturday at the Detroit Lions -- something that has eluded the Bucs since the early part of the season -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady looked deep down the left sideline and fired a 33-yard pass to a wide-open Mike Evans.
The Bucs’ Pro Bowl receiver took advantage of cornerback Darryl Roberts losing his footing to make the catch, setting up a 33-yard touchdown pass two plays later to Rob Gronkowski. But on the next possession, Evans would need no help, with No. 13 running down the middle of the field alongside Antonio Brown for a 27-yard TD reception.
Evans would catch 10 passes on 12 targets for 181 yards and two touchdowns, the second one coming after Brady’s day was done in the third quarter, with Blaine Gabbert finding Evans on an out route for a 22-yard TD.
In the process, Evans managed to break his own single-season franchise record for touchdown catches (13) and come within 40 yards of reaching 1,000. Assuming he reaches it next week, he would be the first player in NFL history to record 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first seven seasons. He and Pro Football Hall of Famer Randy Moss are the only two players with 1,000 yards in each of their first six seasons.
Teammates have wanted it so badly that Bucs quarterbacks were actually forcing him the ball Saturday. Even if there appeared to be an easier completion available elsewhere, they’d still send it Evans’ way.
“Every time Blaine had a chance, we were going to try to get Mike that record,” coach Bruce Arians said.
“They care about me, and I appreciate that a lot. All of my teammates -- they definitely want me to get the record [and] to be the first in NFL history," Evans said. "It’s a huge accomplishment."
That record has been talked about all season for Evans, but it seemed like it could evade him, because not only were he and Brady still trying to establish chemistry through much of the season, but he was competing for his quarterback's attention with a slew of other weapons in Chris Godwin, Gronkowski, Brown and an emerging Scotty Miller. Evans also saw considerable double coverage.
Yet he never complained.
“Mike is all about winning. I’ve been around a lot of great receivers -- can’t say I’ve ever been around one as unselfish as he is,” Arians said. “He just wants to win."
Nor did he make a fuss about spending much of the season playing on one ankle, unable to make the necessary cuts to be his most effective self.
“Early in the season, I was hurt really bad,” Evans said. “But, it’s my job to play, like I always say. It just feels good. I’m getting back on track and getting healthier.”
Arians added, "Obviously, he’s played really hurt. A couple ballgames, he had no business being out there, but I couldn’t get him off the field. I had to fight him to get him off the field."
Which makes the Bucs earning a trip to the playoffs this season -- their first in 13 years -- that much sweeter. For years, Evans was one of the lone bright spots on a team whose season was always done in December.
He’s been through three head coaches and gone through a carousel of quarterbacks, from Josh McCown and Mike Glennon to Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick and now Brady. And he has shown up for every one of them, with his connection really starting to flourish lately with Brady, who hasn’t had a receiver of Evans’ caliber since Moss. He even restructured his contract twice so the Bucs could add talent and re-sign some of their own.
Evans has also stood somewhat in the shadows when it comes to the league’s top receivers. Coming out of Texas A&M in the 2014 draft, Sammy Watkins was the headliner in a robust class of receivers. And then in the NFL, it was Odell Beckham Jr. grabbing all the headlines during their rookie seasons. Beckham may have had the one-handed catch in the end zone, but Evans caught one spinning as Keanu Neal pummeled into him and somehow managed to hang on.
But Evans has arguably become one of -- if not the most -- dependable wideouts in the league, missing just six games in the past six seasons, and he's a key reason Brady’s transition into Arians’ offense has taken a few steps forward over the past two weeks. If they make a postseason run and extend this three-game win streak into the playoffs, he’ll be a big reason for it.
But he deserves a spot in the record books, too.
“Mike does pretty much everything better than [anyone],” Brady said last month. “Nothing is 50-50 with Mike -- Mike’s better at just about anything than anybody.”
Which should bode well for his chances for the record against the Falcons in the season finale. Against this same crew two weeks ago, Evans was virtually unstoppable in the second half, catching 6 of 7 targets for 110 receiving yards.
“I desperately want that to happen," Arians said. "Whatever he needs -- [40 yards] or whatever he has left -- I’m sure Atlanta’s not going to want to give it to him, so we’ll have to find some creative ways to get it for him.”