CB Juran Bolden found the game constantly just out of their reach Saturday in Foxborough
The road has been kind to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for most of this season, but on Sunday it took them to the house of the defending champs, and to their worst loss of the season.
The New England Patriots, winners of their last three games and three of the last four Super Bowls, dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball en route to a 28-0 victory. It was Bucs' first loss by more than five points on the road this season and a sharp departure from their extremely strong performance six days earlier in Charlotte.
Tampa Bay still finished the season 5-3 away from home this season and will still be in the thick of the playoff race at the end of the weekend. However, they will spend the rest of the weekend watching the fortunes of the rest of the NFC contenders try to gain ground, especially the Carolina Panthers, who can now regain first place in the NFC South with a win over New Orleans.
The Bucs are 9-5 and will play their remaining two games at home against South teams they have already beaten on the road this season, Atlanta and New Orleans. Sunday's loss in Foxborough could hurt the Bucs' playoff chances, but it notably did not damage their strong intra-division or intra-conference records. The Bucs finished 2-2 against AFC opponents this season, beating Miami and Buffalo but losing to the Patriots and the New York Jets.
New England's defense pitched the first shutout against the Bucs since Head Coach Jon Gruden took over in 2002 and the first against Tampa Bay since Gruden's Oakland Raiders beat the visiting Bucs 45-0 on December 19, 1999. Tampa Bay had gone 101 games since, including playoffs, without getting blanked. The Bucs will be happy if this season proves similar to that 1999 campaign, in which the loss to Oakland was the team's only defeat in the last nine games and the Bucs advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
And, they certainly won't feel this way on Saturday, the Bucs have to be pleased with two wins in a brutal December three-game road swing, particularly when the two wins came against division opponents.
New England snapped the Bucs' three-game road winning streak by blowing up the formula that had led to recent good days in Baton Rouge and Charlotte. Specifically, they killed the Bucs' running attack, which had featured the NFL's leading per-game rusher on the road, Cadillac Williams. Williams had a 108 rushing yards per game on the road coming in but was held to 23 yards on 14 carries by the Patriots. Running on almost every first down in the first half, the Bucs carried 11 times before halftime, 10 by Williams, but failed to gain more than three yards on any of them. In fact, the Bucs did not have a four-yard run until 11 minutes were left in the game and they were down by four touchdowns. In all, Tampa Bay gained just 30 yards on 18 carries, with no run longer than four yards.
Down 21-0 at halftime, the Bucs had to air it out in the second half and didn't have much more success. Simms, throwing mostly short passes under heavy pressure, completed 21 of 34 passes for 155 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. The second half was mostly uneventful until the Patriots padded their lead with a five-play, 51-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. Brady hit Dillon for a two-yard touchdown on third-and-goal to give the Pats a 28-0 edge with 11:32 to play.
Tampa Bay could have been in a much more favorable possession going into the second half but for an unfavorable turn of events just before halftime. The Bucs' defense, which had stiffened after allowing an opening-drive touchdown, stopped New England at the 50 and forced a punt. However, LB Ryan Nece ran into punter Josh Miller on the kick and drew a personal foul to prolong the drive. QB Tom Brady took advantage, finishing a 12-play touchdown drive with a handoff to RB Corey Dillon, who scored on a three-yard run just before the two-minute warning.
The Bucs tried to utilize those last two minutes to get back into the game but it backfired when Simms was sacked near midfield by unblocked LB Mike Vrabel. The resulting fumble was returned by LB Willie McGinest to the Bucs' 27, and Brady hit WR David Givens with a 16-yard touchdown pass three plays later.
The absence of a ground game also opened Simms up to the full brunt of the Patriots' varied and dangerous pass rush. Starting in a 3-4 alignment, the Pats brought an assortment of linebackers off the edge and virtually all of them got to Simms at some point or another. Linebackers Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin, Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi all had sacks, two each by McGinest and Bruschi and Simms was dropped seven times overall, fumbling twice. That has also been a determining factor for the Bucs on the road this season; their quarterbacks suffered just six sacks in their five wins but were dropped 15 times in their three losses.
Despite troubles rolling the scoreboard, the Bucs' offense did move the ball at times and made some key plays on third down. Simms repeatedly looked for WR Ike Hilliard, his new favorite target on third down, and Hilliard's first four catches all converted third downs into first downs. Hilliard, who had a season-high five catches last week against Carolina, matched that on Saturday, gaining a team-high 50 yards on his five grabs. The Patriots were able to mostly stifle WR Joey Galloway, who had four catches for 38 yards.
Another key penalty hurt the Bucs' chances to get back into the game in the third quarter when Mark Jones' 81-yard punt return for a touchdown was nullified by a holding penalty. In all, the Bucs were flagged eight times for 58 yards, an early-season issue that had been mostly conquered in recent weeks.
New England finished with a decided edge in virtually every statistical category, and they kneeled inside the Bucs' red zone in the closing minutes rather than going for another touchdown. The Patriots out-gained the Bucs 336-138 in total yards, rang up 22 first downs to the Bucs' 12, converted seven of 15 third-down tries and allowed only one sack of Brady.
The Bucs' defense was getting its first look at Brady, and the two-time Super Bowl MVP made an instant impression, driving New England 76 yards for a touchdown on the game's opening possession. Brady was 4-6 for 53 yards on the drive, with the most important completion, a 32-yard sideline strike between two defenders to Givens, coming on third-and-seven from the Patriots' 27. Brady finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to Ashworth. Yes, offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, who had reported in as one of two extra eligible players along the line, along with Mr. Touchdown himself, LB Mike Vrabel. Vrabel was the decoy on this one and Ashworth was able to escape undetected for a simple little one-yard strike just into the end zone, his first career touchdown.
Either Brady or Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick showed his experience and savvy on New England's next drive, which ended near midfield. A 31-yard pass to Givens got the Patriots out of the shadow of their own end zone, but network replays appeared to show the ball slipping out of Givens' hands and onto the turf as he made the diving catch. The Patriots hustled to the line and ran a simple QB sneak, gaining just one yard on first down but gladly giving up that down to keep the Bucs from throwing a challenge flag.
Tampa Bay's offense struggled in the first half as the Patriots' 3-4 defensive front proved tough to handle. McGinest and Colvin each had third-down sacks to end the Bucs' first two possessions, and Tampa Bay never got closer than Patriot 40-yard line. The Bucs had were in long third-down situations because they had a particularly hard time running the ball. Williams repeatedly got the ball on first down but was able to gain just 17 yards on 10 carries.
S Dexter Jackson led the team with eight tackles, and DT Chris Hovan had another strong game around the line of scrimmage, with seven tackles. LB Derrick Brooks also had seven stops, two for losses, and added a pass defensed. DE Simeon Rice had the Bucs' one sack.
Tampa Bay will play host to Atlanta next week at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, December 24. The regular season come to an end on Sunday, January 1, with a home game against the Saints.
Game Notes: One week after playing in the 50th game of his NFL career, DT Ellis Wyms made his first NFL start on Sunday against the Patriots. Wyms replaced injured DT Anthony McFarland (hamstring) in the starting lineup and contributed five tackles … DE Simeon Rice made the 150th start of his NFL career on Sunday, 77 of which have come with the Buccaneers. … DE Simeon Rice's sack in the third quarter was his 10th of the season, giving him five consecutive seasons with at least 10 sacks. He has eight double-digit sack seasons overall, fifth-most in NFL history. … FB Mike Alstott moved into the top five on the Bucs' all-time receptions list on Sunday. His two grabs against New England gave him 280 on his career and moved him past former TE Jimmie Giles (279) into fifth place. Alstott is also within striking distance of fourth place, which is currently held by former WR Kevin House, with 286. Alstott already ranks first on the Bucs' all-time touchdown list and second on the career rushing chart. … P Josh Bidwell's streak of 14 consecutive games with at least one punt of 50 or more yards came to an end Sunday…barely. Bidwell's first and last punts of the day both went for 49 yards. … David Givens' 137 yards on six receptions were a new career-high for the Patriot receiver. … Tampa Bay is now 2-4 this season when it does not have a positive turnover ratio. The team is also 1-4 when the opposing team scores first.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: K Todd France, RB Derek Watson, CB Blue Adams, LB Marquis Cooper, T Chris Colmer, C Scott Jackson, DT Anthony McFarland and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay.
The Patriots named the following eight players inactive: FB Heath Evans, OL Ross Tucker, T Matt Light, T Nick Kaczur, TE Benjamin Watson, DL Dan Klecko, DE Marquise Hill and designated third quarterback Matt Cassel.
Injuries: TE Anthony Becht injured his right ankle in the second quarter but was able to return.