The Tampa Bay Buccaneers built a 17-0 lead over the red-hot Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, but five consecutive turnovers in Tampa Bay territory in the second half facilitated 34 unanswered points for the visitors in what would eventually be a 34-23 Cincinnati victory.
"It's the same old song, Bucs versus Bucs," said Head Coach Todd Bowles after the game. "We played a good first half; the second half we come out and we shoot ourselves in the foot, either by turnovers or penalties or field position on special teams. A tale of two halves, and the half we played in the second half was Bucs versus Bucs."
With the loss, the Buccaneers fell to 6-8 but maintained a one-game lead in the NFC South thanks to losses earlier in the day by Carolina to Pittsburgh and Atlanta to New Orleans. Cincinnati extended its winning streak to six straight games and improved to 10-4 and took over first place in the AFC North with a one-game lead over Baltimore. The Bengals also finished a sweep of NFC South teams in 2022 and the Buccaneers fell to 0-5 against AFC opponents.
"Just unforced errors," said QB Tom Brady. "Two fumbles, two interceptions, you can't win football games like that. We had a good first half, we were in good position and then we literally just gave them the ball. If you give them the ball, obviously we can't score, and they're a good offense so they scored. They took advantage."
The wave of turnovers in the second half ruined what was in many ways an impressive performance by Tampa Bay's defense against a Cincinnati offense that ranked fifth in the NFL in yards and sixth in points coming into the weekend. Before a clock-draining touchdown march late in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati's longest scoring drive was 39 yards and the Buccaneers out-gained the Bengals in total yards, 396 to 237. It was the Bengals' second-lowest yardage total of the season. But Cincinnati didn't need many extended drives, as here wasn't a single play run in Cincinnati territory during the first 28 game minutes of the second half.
"We work at it every week," said Bowles of trying to get more consistent, mistake-free play. "In football, all you can do is fight. You can fight, you can play smarter, you can coach smarter and we've got to keep fighting. We understand what we're doing is not good enough by far, it's not even close to good enough, and we've got three games left to try to save our season."
The Buccaneers dominated the first half, taking a 17-3 lead into the break and picking up 261 yards and 16 first downs to 83 and six for the Bengals. Tampa Bay possessed the ball for 20-and-a-half minutes in the half as the defense did not allow a single third-down conversion and the offense never had to punt. The Buccaneers' defense also had the only takeaway of the first half, as a diving Carlton Davis interception off a Keanu Neal tip set up a field goal drive for the home team.
"We played good," said Brady of the first half. "I think we have the ability to play good; I don't think that we lack confidence in playing good. It's just consistency, and two good quarters doesn't win you any football games. Five turnovers doesn't win you any football games."
After that nearly flawless first half, the Buccaneers coughed up their lead in a hurry with a series of turnovers and self-inflicted wounds in the third quarter. Several short kickoff returns by Deven Thompkins gave the Buccaneers bad field position on its first two drives, and a botched fake punt led to a Cincinnati field goal when RB Giovani Bernard couldn't handle a direct snap. (The fake punt wasn't technically a turnover but functionally served as one.) CB Trey Flowers then intercepted a Brady pass in Bucs territory, leading to a short Bengals touchdown drive. That drive nearly flamed out twice before reaching the end zone but penalties erased a fourth-down sack near midfield and a third-down stop just before the touchdown.
"He missed the ball," said Bowles of Bernard's inability to come down with the snap. "We needed one yard, we had it, we practiced it all week, we just didn't handle the football. It was fourth-and-one. They had a front that we could take advantage of, it was blocked well, we could have run for four or five yards, we missed the ball."
On the next drive, Brady lost a fumble at the 13-yard line while taking a third-down sack. The result was a second Burrow touchdown pass and the Bengals' first lead of the game. The Buccaneers then committed a fourth straight giveaway on a botched handoff between Brady and Leonard Fournette at the Bucs' 39-yard line and the Bengals capitalized with another touchdown drive to make it a 10-point game. Finally, a hit on Brady on Tampa Bay's first drive of the fourth quarter led to a floater and a diving interception by LB Germaine Pratt at the Bengals' 47 with 12 minutes left in the game. Tampa Bay's defense did force a punt after that turnover but at that point the game was out of hand.
Brady finished the game with 312 yards on 30-of-44 passing, hitting Russell Gage on two touchdown passes and Godwin on a third. He was picked off twice, giving him five interceptions in the last three games after he was picked off just twice in the first 11 contests of the season. He completed eight passes each to Godwin and Gage and also found Mike Evans five times for 83 yards. The running game produced 92 yards on 25 carries, with 44 for Fournette and 38 for Rachaad White.
ILB Lavonte David led the defense with eight tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. CB Carlton Davis recorded four of the Bucs' nine pass breakups as Joe Burrow was held to 200 total passing yards and star receiver Ja'Marr Chase gained just 60 yards on seven catches. However, Burrow did throw four touchdown passes to four different players, including one each to the Bengals' trio of star receivers: Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The Bengals were only able to run for 53 yards on 21 carries, with Burrow's 10-yard scramble their longest carry of the day.
Cincinnati got the ball first and Burrow immediately got the visitors moving with completions of 12 and seven to Higgins. Two plays later, a flare pass to Mixon got 11 and made it first down at the Bucs' 40. However, the Bucs' defense brought a quick end to the drive when Neal tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage and Davis dived to get the interception off the deflection at the 30-yard line.
The Bcuccaneers' offense took the ensuing drive into Cincinnati territory as Brady converted a third-and-five and a third-and-eight with laser-like passes through traffic to Gage for seven and Evans for 16. Rookie TE Cade Otton then sprung open in the right flat, caught a short pass and then stiff-armed a defender off of him to get 20 yards to the 21. Two White runs moved the chains and the rookie back then weaved through defenders to get seven and make it second-and-three at the four. Left tackle Donovan Smith was shaken up on the play. After a second-down incompletion in Gage's direction in the back of the end zone, Brady scrambled up the middle but couldn't get the first down and the Bucs settled for Succop's 21-yard field goal.
After a hard hit by DL Will Gholston on RB Samaje Perine left Cincinnati in a third-and-four, the Bucs' defense got off the field again thanks to a third-down sack of Burrow, split by OLB Anthony Nelson and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. The result was excellent field position for the offense after a 41-yard punt and a nine-yard return by Deven Thompkins to the Bucs' 41.
Brady began the next drive with a perfect play-action fake and a strike deep over the middle to Evans for what was originally a 33-yard gain. However, an illegal blindside block flag on Godwin erased 24 of those yards and led to a rare first-and-one on the midfield stripe. After a short run by Fournette moved the chains, the Bucs faced a third-and-one at the Bengals 40 after a nine-yard Godwin catch on an in-breaking route. An incompletion made it fourth-and-one and Evans made a remarkable sliding catch for seven yards with Bengals CB Eli Apple draped all over him. The Bengals threw the challenge flag but the initial ruling stood, making it first down at the Cincy 33. Evans made another sliding catch on the next play then hopped up and got the ball down to the nine. Fournette leaped over a prone defender on a run right for five yards. After the teams switched sides to start the second quarter, Fournette ran for two on third down and LB Germaine Pratt broke up a pass intended for Gage in the middle of the end zone. The Bucs went for it on fourth down and Brady went back to Gage on a shallow flag route for the two-yard touchdown.
David blitzed off the right edge on the first play of the Bengals' next drive, dropping Burrow for a seven-yard sack and forcing a fumble, though Burrow was able to pull it back in. On third-and-16, Winfield broke up a sideline pass intended for Higgins right at the sticks. The Bucs got the ball back at their own 36 after the punt.
The Bucs brought Thompkins out on offense to start the next drive and he took an end-around outside right tackle for a gain of nine. After a White run led to a first down a yard shy of midfield, a false start and another White run made it second-and-10. Evans' fifth catch of the game on a play-action slant was good for 12 and a first down at the Cincinnati 40. The drive stalled at the 32, however, and Succop came on to try a 50-yard field goal. He hooked it wide left to keep the score at 10-0.
The Bengals thus got possession at their own 40, and two Perine runs made it third-and-three at the 47. Burrow tried to hit Chase on the sideline but Davis got a hand in the way to break it up and force a punt. Thompkins fair-caught the kick at the Bucs' 15 with 6:30 left in the half.
Fournette danced up the middle for seven yards and then bashed for six more and a new set of downs. Two plays later, Brady found Godwin crossing left to right and hit him for a gain of 15 almost to midfield. The Bucs faced a third-and-two after getting into Cincinnati territory and an outlet pass to Fournette was good for 12 as the two-minute warning arrived. After the break, Godwin ran a deep crosser and Brady hit him in stride for a gain of 18 to the 16. The Bengals used their second timeout of the half with 1:48 left on the clock, after which Brady went to Godwin for another first down at the five. On first-and-goal, Godwin jumped out to the right on a tunnel screen and raced to the pylon, diving over the line for the touchdown.
Cincinnati had saved time for Burrow to work by using their timeouts and Burrow completed four quick passes to get the Bengals into scoring range, including a 15-yard strike to Chase. After a swing pass to Perine was held to no yards by a quick-reacting David, Burrow spiked the ball and Evan McPherson came on to drill a 41-yard field goal and avoid a first-half shutout.
Thompkins took the opening kickoff of the second half out of the end zone and only got back to the 17. The Bucs lined up to punt it away for the first time after going three-and-out, with a third-down screen to White needed six and got five. The Bucs tried a rare fake punt but not everyone was on the same page, as Bernard appeared to not be expecting the snap and couldn't pull it in. The result was a loose ball that Bernard recovered but couldn't advance. Burrow scrambled away from trouble on the next snap and got to the left sideline to make it first-and-goal at the six. A clutch pass breakup by Logan Ryan put the Bengals into third-and-goal and Davis ocne again broke up a pass intended for Chase, this time leading Cincinnati to bring out the field goal unit. McPherson knocked it through from 21 to make it 17-6.
Thompkins got spun around on the ensuing kickoff return, ended up backtracking was brought down at the eight. Fournette started the drive with a run for four and a catch over the middle for nine, but a Ko Kieft holding penalty then pushed the ball back to the 11. An eight yard catch over the middle by Godwin between two defenders gave the Bucs a shot to extend the drive but on third-and-eight Brady tried to hit Brate down the left numbers and CB Trey Flowers made a diving interception at the Bucs' 31.
The Bucs' defense forced a third-and-three and Chase couldn't haul in a pass at the goal line with Murphy-Bunting in tight coverage. The Bengals went for it on fourth-and-three and the Bucs' defense came up with a huge sack, chasing Burrow all the way back to midfield. However, David was flagged for defensive holding and the result was a first down at the 19. On second-and-11 after a Bengals false start, S Mike Edwards read a quick outlet pass to TE Mitchell Wilcox and limited it to two yards. A facemask penalty on Davis saved the Bengals on third down again, making it first-and-goal at the five. On the next play, Burrow allowed the play to develop for a long time and eventually found Higgins open running across the back of the end zone for the five-yard score. The Bengals went for two to try to make it a three-point game but Dee Delaney knocked away pass intended for Tyler Boyd in the back left corner of the end zone.
The Buccaneers' next drive ended badly, as well. The Bengals got the Bucs into a quick third-and-10 and Brady took a sack by D.J. Reader and Logan Wilson, in the process losing his hold on the ball. Cincinnati recovered at the Bucs' 13 and had a first-and-goal at the three moments later. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka nearly intercepted a shovel pass and Gholston stopped Mixon for no gain on second down, but Burrow just got the ball to Boyd in the end zone by the right sideline for the go-ahead score. The Bengals went for two again and got it this time on a Higgins catch at the goal line.
That made it 20-17 in Cincinnati's favor with 2:40 left in the third quarter. After a quick first down, the Buccaneers lost possession again on a Fournette fumble that the Bengals recovered at Tampa Bay's 39. CB Sean Murphy-Bunting nearly intercepted a Burrow pass on the next snap but couldn't hold on along the sideline. On third-and-eight, Burrow got the ball to Chase right at the marker despite tight coverage from Davis. That brought the third quarter to an end, and on a subsequent third-and-nine from the 28 Burrow scrambled up the middle before throwing on the run to Wilcox for 18. Two plays later, Burrow found Chase near the goal line and the receiver got over the line to give the Bengals a 10-point lead.
The Bucs' next drive, after a touchback, got moving with an 11-yard catch by Gage, and Evans then drew a pass-interference call for a pickup of 15 to get the ball into Cincinnati territory for the first time in the second half. That didn't last long as the Bucs were then flagged for holding. On the next play, Brady was hit as he threw, leading to a wobbler that Pratt somehow kept from hitting the turf as he dived to catch it at the Cincinnati 47.
The Bucs' defense got a three-and-out in response but Drue Chrisman punted the ball out of bounds at the two-yard line with 10:50 left. The offense got the ball off the goal line but couldn't move the sticks, as a third-and-seven pass to Gage came up two yards short. Jake Camarda lofted a 51-yard punt that was fair caught at the Cincinnati 38 with 9:18 left.
An illegal formation penalty on the Bengals helped lead to a third-and-five at the 44, but a receiver screen to Trenton Irwin worked just well enough to move the chains. Mixon eluded several tacklers on a short pass to get the ball down to the Buccaneers' 40, and three plays later Boyd caught a short pass and dived forward to get past the line to gain. On first down, Perine ran up the middle for nine, but the next two plays failed to move the chains. The Bengals went for it on fourth-and-inches, after the Bucs' first timeout stopped the clock with 2:32 left but didn't have to run a play as the Bucs jumped offside. Two plays later, Burrow faked a handoff, rolled to his right and found Wilcox wide open for a 12-yard touchdown.
The Bucs had 2:21 to work with after that score and did manage to post a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Brate's 21-yarder down to the Cincinnati 19 was the big play but Gage caught three passes for 30 yards on the march, including the five-yard touchdown with 49 seconds left. The Buccaneers tried an onside kick but the Bengals recovered and ran out the clock.