The third quarter had been very good to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through the first 11 games of 2012. Not so much in Game 12 Sunday in Denver.
The Denver Broncos used a 21-point third period, capped by LB Von Miller's 26-yard interception return for a touchdown, to pull away in a game that had been played to a near draw in the first half. Tampa Bay rallied for the last 10 points of the game but ran out of time after an unsuccessful onside kick attempt just before the two-minute warning.
Broncos QB Peyton Manning threw two of his three touchdown passes in the third quarter, both of them to Demaryius Thomas, who finished with eight catches for 99 yards. Denver's 21-points in the third quarter nearly matched the 24 Tampa Bay's defense had allowed in all other third quarters this season.
The Buccaneers also lost by more than seven points for the first time in 2012 (though the game was still within one score), lost for the first time to an AFC opponent and saw their three-game road winning streak snapped. The loss dropped Tampa Bay to 6-6, but it remains just one game out of the last NFC playoff spot with four weeks to play. Seattle's overtime win at Chicago earlier in the day put the Seahawks in the lead for the conference's #6 seed. If there was a silver lining to the Bucs' loss, it was that it did not hurt their conference record, which could end up being critical in playoff tiebreakers.
With the victory, the Broncos improved to 9-3 and clinched the AFC West title in Manning's first year with the team. Manning completed 27 of 38 passes for 242 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The Buccaneers did not sack him and, for the most part, had difficulty getting him out of his comfort zone.
The Bucs led 10-7 at halftime but lost an ongoing field position battle in the third period. The two drives that ended in Thomas touchdowns covered 52 and 57 yards, respectively, as the Broncos' average drive start of the 39.1-yard line on the day was far better than the Bucs' mark of the 24.0-yard line.
Tampa Bay's offense struggled in the third quarter but was able to mount a comeback in the final period, as Josh Freeman's five-yard touchdown pass to WR Mike Williams made it 31-23 with 2:33 to play. Freeman completed 18 of 39 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also hooked up with TE Dallas Clark on an 11-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bucs a three-point lead that would hold until halftime. Freeman's lone turnover came due to a hit from DT Mitch Unrein just as he was throwing, resulting in an altered pass that went right to Miller. Miller, a leading candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, also had the Broncos' only sack of Freeman, his 15th of the year.
The outing likely would have been a lot smoother for Freeman and company if not for a rash of penalties. The Bucs drew 11 on the day for 80 yards, their second highest flag total in 2012.. The Broncos were also penalized eight times for 75 yards.
Rookie RB Doug Martin, who came into the weekend ranked second in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage, ran 18 times for 56 yards and caught three passes for 42 more. Though he came up two combined yards short of his eighth 100-yard game of the year, he once again fought for tough yards between the tackles when rushing lanes failed to materialize.
Much of the final totals were actually quite even, as Denver picked up 333 yards to the Bucs' 306 and each team averaged 5.0 yards per play. The Broncos had narrow edges in both rushing yards (91-71_ and net passing yards (242-235) and converted one more third down than Tampa Bay (four of 11 to three of 12.
Rookie LB Lavonte David had another very strong day as he continues to build his candidacy for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. David led the Bucs with 10 tackles, three of which were for a loss, giving him 17 TFLs in 2012. He also broke up two passes and recorded his first career interception, which set up one of Connor Barth's three field goals. Barth's successful 50 and 55-yard tries in the second half allowed the Bucs to stay within striking distance at the end of the game.
S Ahmad Black played extensively as the Bucs frequently used corner-turned-safety Ronde Barber in the slot. Black and Barber pitched in with six tackles each and Black added a pass defensed. The Bucs' defense racked up seven more tackles for loss while holding the Broncos to 3.1 yards per carry.
The Bucs lost the coin toss for just the second time all season, but the Broncos used the same deferral strategy the Bucs have employed all season, meaning the visitors got the ball first. However, it was Denver that put together the first scoring drive, after a three-and-out by Tampa Bay's offense. Manning threw exclusively short passes on the drive, to good effect until Barber made a diving break-up on a third-down pass in the red zone. However, Barber was flagged for pass interference to set up a new set of downs, and the Broncos ended it with a bit of a trick play. Unrein lined up as an extra blocker on a first-and-goal play from the one, but peeled off to the left and Manning lobbed it to him for the game's first points.
The Buccaneers responded with a nice drive of their own but unfortunately had to settle for three points at the end. A 26-yard screen pass to Martin was the big play on the drive, and a neat misdirection throwback to TE Luke Stocker got the ball inside the Denver 20. That's where it stalled, and Barth came on to hit a 31-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 4:41 left in the first quarter.
The Bucs forced a punt on the next drive, then moved immediately back into scoring range on a 40-yard Freeman toss down the middle to Williams. Two Martin runs created a first down at the Denver 11, then Freeman faked a handoff to the back, rolled right and lobbed a leading pass that Clark snared just off the turf while sliding to the ground.
The Broncos' next drive needed an early replay challenge to stay alive, as Manning quick-snapped on third-and-four to try to catch the Bucs with 12 men on the field. He didn't get the call, but Head Coach John Fox threw the challenge flag at Manning's insistent urging, and the Broncos won the review. Manning's first throw over the top followed two plays later, and it worked for 28 yards to Thomas, down to Tampa Bay's 40. However, a holding call on the Broncos and tackles for loss by Michael Bennett and Dekoda Watson forced another punt, which Roscoe Parrish fair-caught at the Bucs' six.
The Bucs grinded out a pair of first downs to get out of terrible field position, with Freeman converting a third-and-one with a sneak and then a third-and-eight with a sideline pass to Jackson. Jackson absorbed a huge hit from S Rahim Moore just as he caught the ball, but held on for a 19-yard gain. A holding call on T Demar Dotson two plays later put the Bucs in a hole, but a subsequent roughing-the-passer penalty on Miller erased a Denver interception and set up a new first down at midfield. The Broncos' defense turned up the pressure on Freeman on the next three plays, forcing three incompletions and a punt.
Michael Koenen's high kick was fair caught at the 10, but the Broncos got quickly to midfield on a 16-yard run by Moreno and a 19-yard catch-and-run on a slant by Thomas that nearly broke into open field. However, a tackle for loss by DT Gary Gibson and a knifing pass breakup by David on third-and-two forced another punt with 1:56 left in the half. P Britton Colquitt kicked it down to the Bucs' four.
The Bucs were able to run out the rest of the clock, thanks in large part to a seven-yard run by Martin on third-and-four. However, Denver got the ball first to start the second half and Manning converted an early third down in a remarkable way, as he purposely threw a four-yard pass to Moreno even though Moreno was lying on his back on the grass. However, the defense stood three plays later on third-and-six from the Denver 37, forcing an incompletion and a punt.
The Bucs had to give it right back after a quick three-and-out, and although Koenen blasted a 63-yard punt the Broncos started at their own 48 after a 21-yard return by Trindon Holliday. Manning completed passes of 13 and 15 yards to Thomas and Tamme in short order to put the ball at the Bucs' 24. A pass-interference call on Leonard Johnson made it first-and-goal at the eight, and on the next play Manning got it back to Thomas in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead score. CB Leonard Johnson actually had strong coverage on the play but Thomas turned his head just in time to see a perfectly-placed pass from Manning.
A holding call on a nice first-down run by Martin essentially killed the Bucs' next drive, with the team punting away from the 18. That led to outstanding field position for Manning again, which in turn led to another Manning-Thomas TD. This one was from the 10-yard line at the end of a 57-yard drive, making it 21-10 with 4:39 left in the third quarter.
Things went from bad to worse in a hurry. On the second play of Tampa Bay's next drive, Freeman was trying to throw downfield to Jackson when he was hit by Unrein, causing the ball to go directly into the hands of Miller. Miller had no one in front of him and he scored easily on a 26-yard pick-six.
Freeman started the next drive with a quick 12-yard pass to WR Tiquan Underwood, but his next three passes produced just two yards and the Bucs had to punt again. Holliday took off on a winding 45-yard return that looked as if it might go to the house, but LB Jacob Cutrera's diving touchdown from behind prevented the score. That hustle play ended up being huge, as David intercepted Freeman on the next play and got the ball back over midfield.
A 12-yard catch-and-run through traffic by Jackson made it first down at the Denver 36, but a catch down to the 20 by Williams was erased by T Donald Penn's illegal-use-of-hands penalty. The Bucs couldn't pick up another first down and had to settle for Barth's 50-yard field goal, which did make it a two-score game once again.
Unfortunately, it didn't stay that way for long, as the Broncos embarked on a 13-play, 68-yard field goal drive, converting two third downs along the way and erasing 7:14 from the clock. Matt Prater finished it with a 31-yard field goal with 7:36 left in the game.
Martin got one first down on a 14-yard screen but the Bucs soon faced a fourth-and-nine at their own 35 and, by necessity, elected to go for it. A deep out to Underwood failed to hook up and the Bucs gave it up on downs. However, the defense got a quick stop and Prater missed a 47-yard field goal to put the ball back in Freeman's hands at the Buccaneer 37. He quickly threw a 24-yard strike to Jackson but was then stripped by Miller on the next play. Freeman recovered his own fumble but the Bucs subsequently faced a fourth down at the Denver 37. Still needing three scores, the team sent Barth out for another long field goal try and he nailed it from 55 yards out to make it 31-16 with 3:23 to play.
The Broncos ran three times to drain the Bucs' timeouts, then punted it back to the Bucs at the Broncos' 47. Freeman hit Williams down the right sideline for a gain of 28 yards, then put it in the end zone on a fake draw and a quick in by Williams for a five-yard score. The Bucs tried an onside kick but Denver recovered, and the Broncos were able to get one first down to run out the clock.
- The Buccaneers, who had just 52 players on their roster for Sunday's game, deactivated the following six: RB Michael Smith, LB Najee Goode, G/T Derek Hardman, WR David Gilreath, WR David Douglas and DT Matthew Masifilo.
- The Broncos declared these seven inactives: WR Brandon Stokley, QB Caleb Hanie, CB Tracy Porter, FB Jacob Hester, C/G C.J. Davis, TE Julius Thomas and DE Robert Ayers. Stokley was out due to injury and Ayers due to a death in the family.
- CB Ronde Barber made his 211th consecutive start on Sunday. That moved him past former Raiders C Jim Otto to give him the seventh-longest starts streak in NFL history.
- K Connor Barth's 50-yard field goal on the first play of the quarter was his fifth of 50 or more yards in 2012, and his 55-yarder in the fourth quarter was his sixth. That sets the Buccaneers' single-season record, surpassing the five that Martin Gramatica had in both 2000 and 2002.
- QB Josh Freeman threw a pair of touchdown passes to give him 74 on his career and move him into second place on the Bucs' all-time list in that category. Freeman leap-frogged Doug Williams (73) and is now just three behind Vinny Testaverde (77) for the top spot.
- Tampa Bay finished its interconference schedule on Sunday, going 3-1 against the AFC West. Before the loss to Denver, the Bucs had defeated San Diego, Kansas City and Oakland.