Pictures of the Top 10 Broncos in Week 3, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
Since the last time the Denver Broncos came to Tampa, the franchise has been to two Super Bowls and won one championship; gone from Jake Plummer to Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton to Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning to Trevor Siemian; seen their Hall of Fame quarterback become their general manager and his long-time backup become head coach; and did we mention Tim Tebow?
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Tebow, who led the Gators to a national championship in 2008, has played football and baseball in Florida more recently than the Broncos have been to Tampa. So has Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, a 2008 Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick. Serpentine Denver QB Jake Plummer never came to Tampa after the Broncos' most recent visit, but his rights did, via a 2007 trade that was followed swiftly by his retirement.
It has, in fact, been 12 years since the NFL gently suggested that the Broncos play a game at Raymond James Stadium, they type of drought that wasn't supposed to happen with the new scheduling format introduced during the 2002 league expansion. Inter-conference games are now based on rotating divisional matchups between the AFC and NFC. That means that Tampa Bay's division, the NFC South, will be paired up with a particular AFC division every four years. The rotation also alternates home and away games, so every team in the league should play in every other NFL city at least once every eight years. That's how, for instance, the Buccaneers finally fulfilled their burning desire to visit upstate New York in 2009 after the Buffalo Bills spent three-plus decades crashing in the Bucs' guest room because every meeting had to double as a Florida vacation.
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So why have the Broncos stayed away for a dozen campaigns? Aversion to sunlight? Fear of seagulls? No, blame it on a tweak to that scheduling rotation. In an attempt to reduce the number of coast-to-coast trips a team might have to make in a given year, a couple of the home-and-away pairings between the NFC South and the AFC West were switched in 2012. For the Bucs, they specifically had their home and away rotation with Denver and San Diego switched, with the Chargers coming to Tampa instead of the Broncos, as originally intended. That was an enormous relief, given how much shorter a plane flight to Denver is than to San Diego.
So welcome back, Broncos! The beaches are nice this time of year and Ybor City is fun on a Saturday night. Maybe you should treat Saturday night's curfew at the hotel as just a mild suggestion.
Overall, there have only been eight Buc(king)-Bronco matchups since Tampa Bay joined the league as its 27th franchise in 1976. Denver was eagerly waiting in line with an invitation to Mile High Stadium that year, as the entire AFC got a shot at the new team with leg braces and a neck halo, thanks to unfavorable roster-stocking options in that expansion era. There would be only five Denver-Tampa Bay conflicts during the Bucs' first 27 years, but the new scheduling rotation has made them a little more common. Or at least regular. The only teams that Tampa Bay has played less often are Baltimore, Houston and Jacksonville, all teams that have (technically, in the Ravens' case) been part of expansion waves since the Bucs' own league entry in '76.
Denver leads the all-time series, 6-2, though it was nearly knotted shortly before Y2K until the Broncos greeted the new millennium with a three-game winning streak against the Buccaneers. The Bucs have won once each in the mountains and at sea level, both of them in the '90s. After two early Denver blowouts, the last six games have all been decided by a single score (in one case a two-point conversion would have been necessary to make that true, but we're counting it).
Now the Broncos come back to Florida's Gulf Coast with the most-recently-minted Lombardi Trophy in tow, having defeated another NFC South team, Carolina, in Super Bowl 50 last February. If you're a Buccaneers fan and you like omens, here's a fun little tidbit: The last time the Broncos were defending NFL champs they came to Tampa and left with a loss. It was even in the first month of the season, as is this year's get-together. And the Buccaneers had a traveling secretary named Elway and the Broncos had a traveling secretary named Selmon. Okay, that last part may be apocryphal, but the point is that all signs are clearly pointing to another Buccaneer raid of a (champion)ship.
To further try to switch up the Bucs' luck, let's do this particular series Memento style, with the last 15 minutes of this movie coming first. Maybe on Sunday the Broncos won't figure out who their real enemies are until it's too late. Good luck with all of this if you've never seen Memento. Additional note: You should see Memento.
The most recent between two teams that used to emphasize the color orange a lot more was in 2012, when the visiting Bucs absorbed a 31-23 loss in Colorado. Denver was on its way to an AFC-best 13-3 regular-season record (and an unfortunate playoff loss to the infallible quarterback android that replaced Baltimore's Joe Flacco that month), but the Buccaneers were in the hunt in the NFC, too, at 6-5. That "hunt" quickly devolved into a "midnight wandering through the woods from The Blair Witch Project," however, thanks to a five-game losing streak of which Denver took the second seat. The game wasn't really quite as close as the eight-point margin indicates; two Demaryius Thomas TD catches from Manning and a Von Miller pick-six made it 28-10 in the third quarter. Connor Barth got to tap field goals of 50 and 55 yards through the thin Mile High air in the fourth quarter, followed by a Josh Freeman-Mike Williams TD connection to tighten up the score. A failed onside kick and one first down from running back Knowshon Moreno and, lo, it was kneeling time for Mr. Manning.
Denver was a non-playoff team in 2008, as were the Bucs, but at one point it looked like they would both be competing in January to play Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs had a 9-3 record and a hold on first in the NFC South heading into December before losing out to finish 9-7. The Broncos were simultaneously falling from 8-5 to 8-7 but still only needed to beat San Diego at home in Week 17 to win the AFC West. The Chargers exploded for a 52-21 win at Mile High and won the division tiebreaker 8-8. Things might have worked out differently for both clubs if Denver hadn't dealt Tampa Bay its only loss in a six-week span on Oct. 5. The Bucs once again (can I say "once again" when we're doing this in reverse chronological order?) scored late to tighten up the score, but this one really was close most of the way. A clutch 90-yard drive engineered by QB Jeff Garcia ended in a seven-yard TD pass to Ike Hilliard to make it 16-13 but also drained all but 2:02 off the clock. Former Buccaneer Michael Pittman treated his old team badly with two runs to get a first down and keep the Broncos from punting it back. Garcia had relieved an injured Brian Griese – a former Bronco – in the third quarter and completed 13 of his 17 passes in the comeback attempt.
From the Bucs' perspective, the less said about the 2004 season the better, though that was another playoff year for the Broncos. The two teams met in Tampa on Oct. 3, almost exactly 12 years before this Sunday's game, producing a template for their aforementioned 2008 meeting. The score was exactly the same, 16-13, though the aforementioned Plummer had not yet been traded/retired and the aforementioned Pittman was still a Buccaneer. The Bucs' defense held Denver to 249 yards and Plummer to 13 completions in 30 attempts but did not force a single turnover. WR Michael Clayton produced the Bucs' only touchdown on a 51-yard catch, though his helmet declined to make the full trip to the end zone. A wide-open Clayton had to make a diving catch of a pass from Brad Johnson, but he quickly tried to get up as he hadn't yet been touched. Former Buccaneer John Lynch flew by to ostensibly tap Clayton down, but his hand didn't make contact in time while his knee accidently knocked off the receiver's helmet. It was a fun little play but the game had a blah ending, with Jason Elam's 23-yard game-winner in the fourth quarter followed by a masterful Plummer drive that drained all but three seconds off the final 7:26 on the clock.
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If I'm reading Guy Pearce's forearm tattoo right, the next game to consider was also the Bucs' most recent win, another three-point affair in Week Three of 1999. The Broncos weren't your typical defending Super Bowl champs, given that current G.M. John Elway had chosen to end his 16-year run as the Broncos' QB and slide down the Lombardi Trophy's gentle curve into retirement the previous winter. The new Denver quarterback was … okay, really, it's Brian Griese again? He may be the Joe Pantoliano character of this Memento series, constantly having to explain why he keeps showing up in this film. A 1998 third-round pick who, against all odds, didn't pry the job away from that Elway guy as a rookie, Griese was held by a great Buccaneer defense to 14 completions and 132 yards, with LB Hardy Nickerson's interception setting up a Martin Gramatica field goal just before halftime. Griese did throw a TD pass to former Broncos great Ed McCaffrey, these days better known for bringing Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey into the world and sending him off to Elway's alma mater. Mike Alstott, who amazingly never played for the Broncos, scored the Bucs' only TD on a 28-yard run early in the 13-10 game.
The Bucs' 1996 trip to Denver is best remembered as part of the famous 0-5 start under first-year Head Coach Tony Dungy, with Dungy calmly urging his new team to stay the course. Dungy got his first win against against Minnesota, the team he had left to come to Tampa, in Week Six, which is a nice note made possible by the Broncos' fourth-quarter comeback in Week Three. After Michael Husted's 28-yard field goal put the Bucs up by three with 12 minutes to play, Elway hit upon a brilliant strategy of handing the ball to Terrell Davis repeatedly. Davis ran the ball on eight of the 14 plays of an 80-yard drive, including the last one, a three-yard touchdown. The Bucs advanced to midfield on the ensuing possession but All-Pro defensive end Alfred Williams sacked Trent Dilfer, forcing a fumble that the Broncos recovered to seal it.
The 1993 game was probably the least-expected result of the series, as a Bucs team headed for a 5-11 record beat a playoff-bound Broncos squad. In Denver. In the season's penultimate week. With Elway still performing at field level and not in the owners' box. Elway did sling 41 passes, completing 26 for 225 yards, but none of them were caught in, or otherwise transported into, the end zone. The only touchdown allowed by Nickerson and the Bucs' defense was a five-yard first-quarter run by Reggie Rivers. And if that name doesn't sound familiar, you just read about his only touchdown of that entire season. Rookie Craig Erickson threw two touchdown passes for the Bucs, meanwhile, one to tight end Dave Moore and one to wide receiver Courtney Hawkins. Elway got the Broncos to the Bucs' 29 but his final, fourth-down pass was broken up by – we are not joking – Joe King.
At this point in Memento, a truly excellent movie, you're sort of hoping for it to speed up to the end so you can figure out what's going on, so let's speed-round the two remaining games. Heck, to stick with the theme, let's present them as movie pitches.
Working Title #1: Denver over Tampa, 24-7, 1981. Movie opens in Tampa Stadium with the young Tampa Bay franchise striving for its second-ever playoff berth. Grizzled 38-year-old quarterback Craig Morton leads the visiting team to a 7-0 lead but gets hurt just before halftime. In comes future Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese (Potential script revision: Griese, believable? Wouldn't he be six years old at the time. Let's go with Steve DeBerg instead) Steve DeBerg, who is almost immediately picked off by Cedric Brown for a 40-yard game-tying touchdown. However, DeBerg rallies the Broncos to two touchdowns and a 24-7 win. On the opposite sideline, Buccaneers Head Coach John McKay nods sagely to himself and thinks, "We must have this DeBerg kid on our team, though not until we've let Doug Williams go and made an ill-fated trade for Jack Thompson." Fade to black.
Working Title #2: Denver over Tampa, 48-13, 1976. Scrappy underdog expansion team made up mostly of past-their-prime veterans and untested rookies goes a mile high to get the first win in franchise history after losing its initial eight games by a combined score of 184-75. Starting Bucs quarterback Steve Spurrier is carried off on his teammates shoulders, marking the absolute pinnacle of Spurrier's career in sports. (Studio note: Yeah, no. Way too far-fetched.) Okay, fine, Spurrier throws for 131 yards and one pick and the Broncos win, 48-13. Try selling that to Paramount.
Bucs-Broncos Game-by-Game Record:
- Overall Series: Broncos lead, 6-2
- Bucs' Home Record: 1-2
- Bucs' Road Record: 1-4
- Current Streak: Lose 3 (2004-12)
- Buccaneers' Longest Winning Streak: 1 (1993 and 1999)
- Broncos' Longest Winning Streak: 3 (2004-12)
- Regular Season Point Total: Buccaneers 121, Broncos 175
- Most Points in a Game, Tampa Bay: 23, twice (1996 and 2012)
- Most Points in a Game, Denver: Broncos 48-13 (1976)
- Most Points, both teams: 61, Broncos 48-13 (1976)
- Fewest Points in a Game, Buccaneers: Broncos 24-7 (1981)
- Fewest Points in a Game, Broncos: 10, twice (1993 and 1999)
- Fewest Points in a Game, both teams: 23, Buccaneers 13-10 (1999)