>> VOTE FOR THE BUCS' TOP GAMES OF 2016
The tiebreaker that sent the 9-7 Lions off to Seattle for the Wild Card round was "record against common opponents." Tampa Bay and Detroit each played a total of five games against the following four teams: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New Orleans. The Buccaneers split with the Saints and beat the Bears, while the Lions split with the Bears and beat the Saints. Each team lost to Dallas. The difference was the Rams, who beat Tampa Bay in Week Three but later lost to Detroit in Week Six. Thus, the Bucs had a 2-3 record against those "common opponents," while the Lions posted a 3-2 mark.
So which games were our favorites from this past season, and which our least favorites? I'm going to provide my opinion here, ranking them from one (most enjoyable) to 16 (least enjoyable) below. We invite you to use the poll to share your own opinions. If the choices of Buccaneer fans as a whole differ significantly from mine, we'll share that in a couple days, too.
Spoiler alert: All nine wins rank ahead of all seven losses on my list. Shocking, I know.
So without further ado…
1. Week 11: Tampa Bay 19, Kansas City 17, Nov. 20
Not only did the Buccaneers get that win, but the game was a thriller that went down to the wire. Tampa Bay's offense actually controlled the action for much of the day, possessing the ball for more than 35 minutes, racking up 27 first downs and 442 yards and converting on 11 of 16 third downs. Unfortunately, the visitors repeatedly bogged down in the red zone, and thus it was only a 12-10 game, on four Robert Aguayo field goals, heading into the fourth quarter. Alex Smith drove the Chiefs to the Bucs' 10-yard line early in the final period and it appeared as if the Chiefs would reclaim the lead, but safety Chris Conte sniffed out a play-action pass intended for Chris Conley, intercepting it in the end zone returning it to midfield. Jameis Winston drove the Bucs from there for what would prove to be the game-winning score, which was hauled in by rookie tight end Alan Cross for his first career touchdown.
2. Week 1: Tampa Bay 31, Atlanta 24, Sept. 11
After a promising rookie campaign, Winston started his second season red-hot, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after throwing for 281 yards and four touchdowns. In a season that was a little lacking in explosive plays for the Bucs' offense, this was an exception, with the team scoring on receptions of 45, 30 and 23 yards. The Falcons' comeback did get a bit frightening at the end, but Gerald McCoy batted down a fourth-down pass with a little over a minute to play to seal the win. As it turned out, that win would not set the Bucs off on a great first month of the season, as they would lose their next three before rebounding in a big way. However, it did signal the team's newfound competitiveness within the division, where they would finish 4-2 against their South foes.
3. Week 12: Tampa Bay 14, Seattle 5, Nov. 27
Winston threw two touchdown passes to Mike Evans in the first quarter…and that would be the end of the Bucs' scoring on the day despite Winston completing 21 of 28 passes for 220 yards and Doug Martin running for 87. As it turned out, that would be enough, as the Buccaneers' defense pitched a second-half shutout, punctuated by Bradley McDougald's goal-line interception shortly after the two-minute warning. It was a remarkable performance by the Buccaneers' defense, as highlighted by the Seahawks breaking an incredible streak: Before that Week 12 game, Seattle had led or been within one score in the fourth quarter of 98 consecutive games. This game also featured an emotional performance by cornerback Alterraun Verner, who played just days after the unexpected death of his father and contributed a key interception.
4. Week 5: Tampa Bay 17, Carolina 14, Oct. 10
The Buccaneers actually took a 6-0 lead into halftime, thanks to the surprisingly strong performance of running back Jacquizz Rodgers and two Carolina turnovers. However, the Panthers appeared to take the game over with touchdowns on each of their first two second-half drives. Just when it seemed like the momentum had shifted permanently to the home team, Winston hit Cam Brate for 38 yards and then Evans for 26 and a touchdown on a nasty stop-and-go by the all-star receiver. Adam Humphries caught a two-point conversion pass to tie it. Carolina threatened twice more in the fourth quarter but both drives ended in turnovers on the Bucs' end of the field, including a critical diving interception by Brent Grimes in the end zone. Tampa Bay avoided overtime by using the last 1:49 to drive 66 yards and put Aguayo in position for his first game-winning field goal attempt. The rookie drilled it from 38 yards out for the victory.
5. Week 14: Tampa Bay 16, New Orleans 11, Dec. 11
Martin scored on a one-yard run in the second quarter, which would prove to be all the points the Bucs would need. However, the home team had to weather a damaging string of plays just before halftime, which included a botched kickoff return, a safety and a costly special teams penalty. The Saints had a first-and-goal at the Buccaneers' one-yard line, down 13-5, and had a chance to pull close or tie the game just before halftime. Tampa Bay's defense held, forcing a field goal, and then pitched another second-half shutout. Keith Tandy, who surged to prominence in the season's final month, intercepted Brees near midfield with a minute to play, the third of three picks off the Saints' quarterback.
6. Week 13: Tampa Bay 28, San Diego 21, Dec. 4
This game was most memorable for turning on a defensive sequence in the third quarter. With the offense stuck in neutral, Koetter contemplated going for it on fourth-and-two from his own 38 but eventually stayed with the punt. Bryan Anger forced a fair catch at the eight-yard line and on the very next play rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves deflected a quick slant pass intended for Tyrell Williams. Linebacker Lavonte David plucked the ball out of midair and returned it 15 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. Rivers and the Chargers would regain the lead minutes later but the winning score came on a nifty 12-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Brate. Like the Atlanta game in Week One, this one also gets a boost because a very large group of Buccaneer fans were in attendance and making a lot of noise.
7. Week 17: Tampa Bay 17, Carolina 16, Jan. 1
Newton was back for this one but the Buccaneers held him in check for much of the day, intercepting him three times and sacking him three times. Lavonte David was at the center of that effort, recording two sacks as well as a stop behind the line of scrimmage on a designed Newton run in the red zone. Still, Carolina had the lead at halftime, 7-3, before Grimes changed things with a rousing pick-six just two plays into the second quarter. Two more picks by Tandy and repeated field goal misses on both sides kept the game knotted at 10-10 into the game's final minutes. Tampa Bay's offense finished the season in the most fitting of manners, as Winston scrambled and hit Evans on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 3:13 to play. Unfortunately, Newton hit Kelvin Benjamin over the middle for 47 yards on the next play from scrimmage, jump-starting an unexpected touchdown drive that ended in Benjamin's one-yard catch with 17 seconds left. With nothing to lose, the Panthers understandably chose to go for two and the win but a pass over the middle to Greg Olsen was incomplete and the Bucs held on for their first winning season in six years.
8. Week 7: Tampa Bay 34, San Francisco 17, Oct. 23
It was all Buccaneers the rest of the way. Tampa Bay scored 27 unanswered points on the way to 513 yards of offense, with Winston throwing three touchdown passes and Rodgers rushing for a career-high 154 yards. The game's most memorable touchdown was another bit of improvisation between a scrambling Winston and his favorite receiver, as Evans gave his quarterback a quick finger to the sky to call for an alley-oop in the end zone. Winston complied and the Bucs were well on their way to their first 14-point comeback win in six years. In addition, Atlanta lost in overtime to the Chargers on the same day, pulling the resurgent Bucs back into a half-game of first place in the division.
9. Week 10: Tampa Bay 36, Chicago 10, Nov. 13
That doesn't mean it was an unenjoyable afternoon for the Buccaneers and their faithful. This was the beginning of the Bucs' turnaround on defense, which came after a lot of soul-searching during a "mini-bye" following a Thursday night game. All that defense did was force four turnovers in the first half, sack quarterback Jay Cutler four times and even tack on a safety for good measure. Brate had a big day with 84 yards and a touchdown and a bit of improvisation between Winston and wide receiver Freddie Martino resulted in Martino's first career touchdown on a 43-yard catch. A successful 'Hail Mary' pass by Cutler at the end of the half briefly made the game close, but that would be the only touchdown Chicago score as Tampa Bay tallied all 19 of the game's second-half points.
10. Week 15: Dallas 26, Tampa Bay 20, Dec. 18
For a while it looked as if Dallas might run away with it, as they used a powerful running game and precise passing by rookie Dak Prescott to control the ball for more than two-thirds of the first half. However, Winston came out firing in the second half, first with a scrambling 42-yard touchdown pass to Adam Humphries that the receiver hauled in after it was tipped by a defender. That was on the opening drive of the second half and it close the Dallas lead to 17-13. Winston then gave the Bucs a 20-17 lead with a masterful drive ending hin his 10-yard strike to Brate with four minutes left in the third quarter. Dallas had the answer with a trio of field goals in the final period, but a fumble recovery at midfield by David gave the Bucs one more chance to take control in the fourth quarter.
11. Week 4: Denver 27, Tampa Bay 7, Oct. 2
Denver's defense was in Super Bowl form in Week Four, holding the Bucs to 215 yards and picking off Winston twice. Derek Wolfe had half of the Broncos' five sacks on the day, and even a forced switch at quarterback from Trevor Siemian to rookie Paxton Lynch didn't really slow the Broncos down. Denver scored 20 straight points after the game was initially tied at 7-7, and that made the hour-long delay in the fourth quarter due to lightning particularly unpleasant for the home team.
12. Week 8: Oakland 30, Tampa Bay 24 (OT), Oct. 30
However, this was far from the Bucs' worst showing of the season, even if it was part of that two-game midseason valley that featured such depressing defensive numbers. In the case of this game, that's a bit misleading; the Buccaneers had a 24-17 lead and had allowed 380 yards to a blisteringly-hot Derek Carr and the Raiders' offense with less than four minutes to play. Carr and company would gain another 246 yards from that point, including three drives of 40 or more yards in overtime. With 1:49 left in the game, the Raiders snapped the ball from the Bucs' five-yard line on fourth-and-three. Carr's pass to Michael Crabtree on the right edge of the end zone was incomplete, but a holding penalty on cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah in the middle of the field gave the Raiders new life. They scored on the next play and then won near the end of a frustrating overtime in which the Bucs' offense couldn't pick up a first down on two possessions.
13. Week 16: New Orleans 31, Tampa Bay 24, Dec. 24
It was a one-score game at halftime even though the Buccaneers' offense struggled to that point. The game turned at the start of the second half, when another miscue on a kickoff return forced the visiting team to start at its four and a deep pass intended for Evans moments later was intercepted by Jairus Byrd. The Saints scored off that play and the rest of the game was essentially a shootout in which the Bucs couldn't get out of that two-score deficit. Cam Brate scored his eighth touchdown of the season in the first half but was then lost to a back injury and the result on the Bucs' offense was noticeable.
14. Week 2: Arizona 40, Tampa Bay 7, Sept. 18
Tampa Bay would win five of its first six road games in 2016, including big wins at Atlanta, Carolina and Kansas City, but this trip was a downer right from the start. Doug Martin suffered a hamstring injury early in the game and several other key contributors, including Robert Ayers would leave with other ailments. Three first-half turnovers, of five for the game as a whole, helped Arizona build a 24-0 halftime lead and Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer spent the afternoon picking apart the Bucs' secondary.
15. Week 9: Falcons 43, Tampa Bay 28, Nov. 3
This was the last game before the Bucs' defense made its incredible turnaround, and Matt Ryan's Falcons rang up 461 yards of offense. Ryan threw touchdown passes to four different players and was not intercepted. Jameis Winston had three TD passes of his own against no picks but the Bucs couldn't keep pace, even though it was a manageable 20-14 score at halftime.
16. Week 3: Los Angeles 37, Tampa Bay 32, Sept. 25
Even with all of that scoring, the Buccaneers appeared to be poised to take the lead early in the fourth quarter before one of the more improbable touchdowns ever scored against Tampa Bay. The Bucs had reached L.A.'s 16-yard line but a sack by Robert Quinn led to a loose ball that only 270-pound defensive lineman Ethan Middlebrooks was able to locate quickly. Middlebrooks scooped it up and rumbled 77 yards for the score on the longest fumble return ever against the Buccaneers. Winston hit Brate and Evans on fourth-quarter touchdown passes to keep the game close, before a lightning delay right at the two-minute warning forced the teams off the field for 90 minutes. The Bucs got one more chance to win it at the end, reaching a first down at the Rams' 15-yard line with nine seconds to play. After an incompletion, Winston was caught from behind on a scramble and the clock ran out.