Tom Brady threw five touchdown passes and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flipped their own script in Week Four, in the process came away with one of the top comeback victories in team history, a 38-31 decision over the visiting Los Angeles Chargers at Raymond James Stadium.
After logging consecutive wins over Carolina and Denver with dominant first halves and dormant second halves, the Buccaneers fell behind 24-7 in the second quarter Sunday before rallying for 21 straight points. That still wasn't enough to turn back rookie QB Justin Herbert and the very game Chargers, as they took the lead back on the final play of the fourth quarter. But Brady threw three of his five touchdown passes in the second half and the Bucs secured their third straight victory.
"I thought he just played outstanding," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "I've just got to coach him up better on that one play [that was intercepted] and just get it coached better. But he played fantastic and was lights-out in the second half."
The 17-point margin is tied for the second biggest one the Buccaneers have overcome to win a game. They most recently did that against Minnesota on Sept. 18, 2011, coming back from a 17-0 deficit to win 24-20.
"I think there were some times when we hit a little bit of a lull but I thought from the last 50 seconds [of the first half] to the end of the ballgame we made plays to win the ballgame. Very seldom does our defense give up a lead, but they did and we bounced right back and got the score. Then we got the huge interception to ice it. I think we can play better, but we're getting there."
The win gave Tampa Bay its first 3-1 start since that 2011 season and kept them in first place in the NFC South. The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers both won on Sunday to improve to 2-2.
Brady and the Buccaneers' offense opened the game with a 75-yard drive ending in Cameron Brate's three-yard touchdown catch but otherwise had difficulty moving the ball in the first half, settling for mostly underneath passes. However, Brady began pushing it down the field in the second half, connecting with Scotty Miller, Mike Evans, O.J. Howard and Rob Gronkowski on big gains that sparked scoring drives. Howard had three catches for 50 yards and a score before leaving the game with a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture.
"We've got to do a good job forcing them to cover everything," said Brady. "The passing got a little compressed and then we made some plays down the field and it opened some things up. You've got to make them defend everything.
"We put ourselves in a pretty good hole and we were just going to have to dig our way out of it. That's just the way football works sometimes. We've just got to tighten things up. I'm glad we came back. The defense made a big play for us just before the end of the half and that got us and that got us ignited a little bit. We made some plays in the third quarter, made some good plays in the fourth quarter. We started the game well, finished the game well, that middle part we've just to figure out how to play 60 minutes well."
Brady finished the game with 369 yards on 30-of-46 passing. It was his first 300-yard game as a Buccaneer but it was the seventh time he has topped 300 and thrown at least five touchdowns in a game. That's tied with Peyton Manning for the second-most such performances in NFL history, two behind Drew Brees and his nine.
As Brady alluded to, the Bucs actually started their comeback just before halftime when Ndamukong Suh forced a fumble by RB Joshua Kelly at the Chargers' nine-yard line with 38 seconds left in the half. Brady turned that into another score on a scrambling six-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans. He then connected on touchdown passes of 28 yards to Howard, 19 to Miller and nine to rookie RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
Arians said it was the Suh forced fumble, with Devin White recovering for the Bucs at the seven-yard line, that swung the game's momentum in their direction.
"I don't think there's any doubt," he said. "We were making plans to go into halftime, thinking they were going to take a knee. We had one timeout. They decided to run the ball and Suh does a great job of getting it out, and then Tommy makes a great play for the touchdown. Three points right there would have been a deflated win, but the touchdown really made a difference."
Suh added two quarterback hits to go with his big defensive play and Lavonte David led the team with 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed. Shaq Barrett followed up his two-sack effort in Denver in Week Three with another sack to go with seven tackles. But the biggest play of the game for the Bucs' defense was Suh's timely takeaway.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 4 matchup against Los Angeles.
"It created some momentum for us," said Suh. "Tom and the offense did a great job of punching it in, getting a touchdown and allowing us to build off of that. That's what we have to do as a defense, make sure we give them as many opportunities to score points because we know we've got plenty of firepower over there."
Brady did throw one interception to go with his TD barrage, with CB Michael Davis returning it for a 78-yard score. That came moments after Chargers rookie QB Justin Herbert had tied the game with a 53-yard touchdown pass to WR Tyron Johnson. Herbert also threw over a blitz in the third quarter to hit WR Jalen Guyton on a 72-yard score that temporarily put the visitors back ahead, 31-28. Herbert, in just his third NFL start, completed 20 of his 25 passes for 290 yards. However, his last pass was intercepted by Carlton Davis with less than three minutes left in the game.
Brady was supported by a running game that produced 115 yards and 4.3 yards per carry. Ronald Jones ran for a career-best 111 yards and clinched the game after the Davis pick with a 14-yard run for a first down. Jones ran hard throughout the game and Arians credited that for allowing the offense to finally open things up in the second half.
"He just kept pounding, kept pounding and finding holes, finding the soft spot and then breaking tackles," said Arians. "I thought he broke a bunch of tackles today, made four-yard runs into 10s and 11s. Most of [the deep passing] was due to the runs we were setting up. We were running it very well, and then we got some crossing routes of the play action. Scotty in the seam, O.J. in the seam and then it was just, throw it up to Mike."
Vaughn also got his first chance to play on offense after injuries took Leonard Fournette before the game and also hit LeSean McCoy and Kenjon Barner during the contest. His go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter came on a difficult catch that he then turned up and powered through two defenders to get to the goal line.
"I can't say enough about Ke'Shawn stepping in there for his first time and getting a big touchdown catch," said Arians. "All these young kids, they've missed so much, especially the ones that were sick or got hurt. But Tyler [Johnson], Keyshawn…about two or three weeks ago [he] was down. He didn't think he was going to get much action. I told him, 'Hey, you never know, and when it comes it's going to be extremely important so be ready. He was. Hell of a catch, hell of a run getting that thing into the end zone. He played really well."
Brady's top target was Evans, who caught seven passes for 122 yards and his 256th career 100-yard game. He also scored a touchdown for the fifth straight game, a new franchise record dating back to last year's season finale. On what proved to be the game-winning drive that ended in Vaughn's nine-yard touchdown catch, Evans made up for an offensive pass interference call by making a remarkable 48-yard catch two snaps later. That marked the third time in three tries that the Bucs converted a goal-to-go situation into a touchdown; they are now 11-for-11 in that situation this year.
"I'm sure the guys were saying, 'Keep fighting, keep playing and things are going to go our way," said Evans of the turn of momentum sparked by his score. "And they did. I knew in the back of my mind that we were getting what we wanted on offense. We just didn't make the plays we could have made, and in the second half we made more plays."
Brady's offensive outburst and the team's big comeback had more witnesses than the Bucs' first home game, a Week Two win over Carolina. After playing that game with no fans in the stands due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bucs were able to open their gates to approximately 10,000 attendees Sunday. Arians said it made a difference, especially when the fans were voicing their displeasure over the slow start.
"It wasn't quiet quiet," said Arians. "You could hear them hollering, and I could hear them bitching, too. That was great. They needed to bitch there for a while. So I was loving it when they were doing it, and I think our guys heard them, too. So that's awesome."
Ryan Succop finished the scoring with a 26-yard field goal with 2:40 to go. Succop also misfired on a 44-yard attempt in the second quarter but otherwise the Bucs' special teams had another good day. Bradley's three punts went for 58, 57 and 56 and two of them were downed inside the 20, including one that led to Suh's big forced fumble. Jaydon Mickens got 27 yards on three punt returns and also had a 24-yard kickoff return, and Barner ran back a kickoff 33 yards before leaving the game with a concussion.
The Buccaneers will try to follow up their encouraging comeback win with a fourth straight victory on a short week. Tampa Bay plays at Chicago on Thursday night to kick off the NFL's fifth week.
Additional game details (scoring plays in bold):
The Bucs got the ball to start the game and came out with a heavy dose of Jones. The first four plays consisted of two runs and two catches by Jones, resulting in a pair of first downs that moved the ball close to midfield. On the fifth play, Brady faked another handoff to Jones and hit Evans over the middle for a gain of 24. Another Evans grab on the left sideline created a first-and-goal at the eight. Three plays later, Brate went in motion out of the backfield and got open for a three-yard touchdown pass to complete the 10-play, 75-yard drive.
The Chargers answered right back with their own 75-yard drive, though theirs only took four plays. After getting a pair of first downs to approach midfield, Los Angeles went deep, with Herbert throwing a perfect deep ball to WR Tyron Johnson for a 53-yard score. It was the longest play allowed by Tampa Bay's defense in 2020.
Kenjon Barner gave the Bucs good starting field position on the next drive with a 33-yard kickoff return, but it was immediately walked back five yards by a false start. An illegal contact penalty saved the Bucs from a three-and-out, and two strong Jones runs got the ball across midfield. A 15-yard catch-and-run by Justin Watson's 15-yard catch-and-run got the ball to the Chargers' 33 but disaster struck two plays later. Brady tried to find Watson again on the left sideline but CB Michael Davis jumped the route, picked it off and ran 78 yards for a touchdown.
A first-down holding call blew up the Bucs' next drive before it could get going, and Bradley Pinion's first punt sent the Chargers back to their 22. K.J. Hill actually returned the ball well into Buccaneers territory but most of it was erased by a block in the back. Tampa Bay's defense responded with a three-and-out, getting the ball back for Brady at the Bucs' 38 with one minute left in the first quarter, but the Bucs' followed with their own three-and-out.
Pinion pinned the Chargers at their own three with a 58-yard punt. However, Herbert was able to scramble for a first down on third-and-four and the ball moved out to the 29 when S Jordan Whitehead was flagged for a late hit out of bounds. The Bucs appeared to get a stop three plays later but Carlton Davis was flagged for pass interference on Keenan Allen, creating a new set of downs at the Bucs' 38. Herbert then converted a third-and-11 by throwing over a big Bucs blitz to find a wide-open Justin Jackson for 17 yards to the Bucs' 21. Two plays later, Herbert threw to TE Donald Parham, who caught the ball over Sean Murphy-Bunting as he was backing into the end zone.
Each team followed with a drive that got into scoring range, but Ryan Succop missed his 44-yard try wide to the left while Michael Badgley was good from 53 to put the Chargers up by 17 points with 1:37 left in the half.
The Bucs got a first down on the ensuing drive on a five-yard catch by O.J. Howard and survived a replay challenge by the Chargers on the play. Jones followed with runs of seven and 23 to get it to the L.A. 30, then got five more on first down. An unnecessary roughness flag on L.A. LB Kyzir White put the ball right on the midfield stripe but the Bucs backed up from there with a third-down incompletion and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Evans. Another fine punt by Pinion put the Chargers back inside their 10 and that proved important when Suh forced a fumble by RB Joshua Kelly on the next play, with Devin White recovering and getting it down to the five. After two throwaways against tight coverage, Brady scrambled on third-and-goal to buy time and Evans slid to the back of the end zone to catch the six-yard TD pass.
Jordan Whitehead's successful blitz on third-and-six cut the Chargers' first drive of the second half short and the Buc got it back at their own 31. Two catches by Evans led to first downs, as did a 10-yard grab by Watson on a quick slant. On second-and-eight from the Chargers' 28, Brady faked a handoff to Jones and went over the top to Howard, who hauled it near the back of the end zone for his second touchdown of the season.
The Chargers struck right back with a tight end screen to Hunter that worked magnificently, springing him for 30 yards down the left sideline. Another 10-yard grab by Henry made it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 35, and then Allen made a remarkable leaping sideline grab, tapping his toes inbounds at the 26 to make it second-and-inches. The Chargers tried two runs up the middle and got nothing, then went for it on fourth down. This time, Kelly was able to get over the line with a second effort. However, a personal foul by the Chargers cost them 15 yards and led to a 47-yard field goal that Badgley missed to the left.
The Bucs rode their momentum to the lead just before the end of the third quarter. The scoring drive took exactly two plays, both of them hookups between Brady and Miller. First, Miller hauled in a deep, arcing pass for 44 yards to the Chargers' 19. On the next play, Miller got wide open over the middle of the field and easily hauled in Brady's 19-yard dart for the touchdown. That play put the Bucs back in the lead, 28-24, with 52 seconds left in the third period.
The Buccaneers didn't have the lead for long. Three plays later, on third-and-seven, the Buccaneers brought a big blitz but didn't get to Herbert, who was able to loft a pass down the middle to WR Jalen Guyton. Guyton caught it on the run, stepped out of a diving tackle attempt and sprinted to pay dirt for a 72-yard touchdown.
Two more catches by Miller and a 17-yard grab by Howard got the ball over midfield and the Bucs overcame an offensive pass interference penalty on Evans to get inside the 10-yard line. Evans did the work himself, making a remarkable catch over a Chargers defender to gain 48 yards down to the seven. After a three-yard run by Vaughn and a false start, Brady threw an out pass to Vaughn that the rookie snatched out of the air before turning up and diving over the pylon for the nine-yard score.
The Bucs' defense forced a quick three-and-out keyed by Shaq Barrett's sack and the Bucs took over again at their own 21 with eight minutes left in regulation. Brady then directed a methodical drive that chewed up more than five minutes and ended in Ryan Succop's 26-yard field goal and a 38-31 lead with 2:40 left. Vaughn had a key third-down reception in the Bucs' end and Gronkowski fought off LB Kyzir White to come down with a 29-yard seam pass.
Two plays into the Chargers' ensuing drive, Herbert tried to go down the right seam to Allen but sailed it and Davis picked it off at the Tampa Bay 48. Davis returned it well into Chargers territory but a block-in-the-back penalty brought it back to the Bucs' 41. Jones capped his big day with a 14-yard run for a first down at the two-minute warning and Brady kneeled out the rest of the clock.