On a record-setting day for the NFL's top-ranked offense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers mounted one of the most stunning comebacks in franchise history and tied the game with a minute left, only to lose on the final play.
The Buccaneers fell, 37-34, to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday despite erasing a 21-point second-quarter deficit and recording a franchise-record 576 yards of offense. Ryan Fitzpatrick's 18-yard touchdown pass to TE O.J. Howard on fourth down, followed by a two-point conversion strike to Chris Godwin, tied the game at 34-34 with 1:05 left in regulation. However, the Bengals avoided overtime by driving 50 yards in that final minute – the big blow a 23-yard Andy Dalton completion to A.J. Green down the middle. Randy Bullock's 44-yard field goal won it as time expired.
Bullock's only field goal of the day – and the Bengals' only offensive points of the second half – were technically the difference in the game, but the deciding factor was undoubtedly Tampa Bay's four turnovers. All four were Jameis Winston interceptions, the last of which was returned 21 yards for a touchdown by S Jessie Bates. Head Coach Dirk Koetter chose to put Fitzpatrick in for Winston after that turnover, and the 14th-year veteran threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns in just over a quarter of play to lead the comeback.
Koetter said he had contemplated pulling Winston before the fourth interception but decided to stick with the fourth-year passer after he connected with DeSean Jackson on a 60-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Had they won, the 21-point comeback would have matched the biggest in team history in a victory, but in the end the weight of the turnovers proved too much to shed.
"That's a simple message," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We were minus-three last week and somehow we got a win, and we were minus-four today. It's almost impossible to win. We can't turn it over seven times in two weeks. That's not hard to see. That's pretty obvious."
Winston did throw for 276 yards and the long touchdown to Jackson before being relieved, but he was 18 of 35 overall and frequently off-target, usually throwing it too high. He was also sacked five times.
"It's pretty simple: turning it over," said Koetter of Winston's struggles. "Overthrows. It was a very windy day, it wasn't an easy day to throw it, but two of the four the ball was just overthrown."
Fitzpatrick completed 11 of his 15 passes and finished with a passer rating of 154.9. After the game, Koetter said it was not yet time to decide on what the Buccaneers would do at quarterback next week and moving forward. Once again, though, he was pleased to have Fitzpatrick available to come in and move the offense effectively.
"Fantastic," said Koetter of Fitzpatrick's efforts. "Hats off. That's why you've got a veteran backup. He goes in after a pick-six, so he had about two minutes to warm up and went in there and played with composure and did a great job of bringing us back."
Part of that comeback effort was a quick strike to WR Mike Evans on the second Fitzpatrick-led possession in the fourth quarter. On second-and-14, following an offensive pass interference call that backed the Bucs up, Fitzpatrick let one rip down the middle of the field as Evans managed to get behind every Cincinnati defender undetected. He practically jogged into the end zone, pulling the Bucs within one score and making the unlikely comeback just slightly more likely. The touchdown catch was the longest reception of Evans' career and he finished the day with 179 yards receiving on six catches.
The Buccaneers fall back under .500 with the loss, at 3-4. They have dropped four of five since a 2-0 start.
Tampa Bay's defense, which had shown great improvement in Week Seven under new coordinator Mark Duffner, was unable to continue that success into the first half of Sunday's game. Without usual starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was placed on injured reserve during the week, the Buccaneers had trouble slowing down Mixon, who ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns, all but nine of those yards in the first half. Dalton also hooked up repeatedly with WR Tyler Boyd, who caught nine passes for 138 yards and a score. The Bengals had 307 yards by halftime, two more than the Buccaneers had allowed to Cleveland in nearly five quarters the previous weekend.
However, the Bucs' defense stiffened considerably in the second half, allowing just 95 yards after the break, much of that on the Bengals' final drive. Cleveland's first four drives of the second half were all three-and-outs. The Buccaneers did not secure a turnover, however, and their only two sacks, both courtesy of DE Jason Pierre-Paul, came in the second half. Pierre-Paul tied a team record by recording at least one sack for the sixth straight game.
"They got 115 yards rushing on us in the first half and we jumped offside four times," said Koetter. "In the second half, we did better in both areas. We didn't tackle well and they were getting with that same play on the open side, the B gap. We've got to be better. Defensive coaches talking about stopping the run all the time."
Tampa Bay struggled with penalties on both sides of the ball drawing 11 flags for 75 yards.
The Bengals took the opening drive down to the edge of the Buccaneers' red zone, with Mixon going straight up the middle for 18 yards on the first play. Boyd's catch over the middle and extended run after the grab two plays later took it down to the Bucs' 29. Mixon was stopped a yard short of the sticks on a third-and-three carry and Cincinnati hurried up to the line to go for it on fourth down. Mixon got the ball again but was tripped up almost immediately by rookie S Jordan Whitehead.
The Buccaneers thus took over on downs and got a quick first down on runs of nine and seven yards by Barber. After Winston hit Evans over the middle for 19 yards, S Shawn Williams nearly made a diving interception on third-and-four. The Bucs elected to go for it and Winston escaped a collapsing pocket to scramble for a first down at the Bengals' 32. Unfortunately, the drive ended on a turnover as Winston overthrew Evans near the goal line and it was easily intercepted in the end zone by Williams, who returned it to the Cincinnati 25-yard line.
Tampa Bay's defense prevented that turnover from having any worse effect with a three-and-out, began by a Whitehead tackle-for-loss on Mixon. After the punt, the Bucs started again at their own 39. A false start by Ali Marpet erased a third-and-three conversion and Winston's subsequent third-down pass was incomplete. A 16-yard punt return by WR Alex Erickson gave the Bengals a field-position boost to their own 37.
From there, the Bengals got into Bucs territory on one play, a 32-yard bomb down the right sideline to TE Jordan Franks. Two plays later, Dalton found Boyd wide open crossing to the left and hit him, with the receiver diving down to the one-yard line in an attempt to get to the pylon. The Bengals rushed up to the line and ran Mixon up the middle for an easy score and the games' first points with three minutes left in the opening quarter.
Winston completed passes of 18 yards to Howard and 20 yards to Evans to get the ball back across midfield but was picked off again on an ill-advised throw over the middle on a scramble. LB Preston Brown got this one and returned it 18 yards to the Bengals' 42.
As the second quarter began, the Bengals converted a third-and-three with a Boyd sideline catch at the Bucs' 43. A holding call helped push Cincinnati into a third-and-13, but after a 10-yard swing pass to Mixon the Bengals elected to go for it on fourth-and-three from the 36. A quick slant to a sliding Green did the trick for 10 yards. Mixon found the edge on a sweep two plays later and got down to the 13 for another first down. Dalton completed it on third down from the nine with a touchdown strike down the middle to Boyd, who made a spinning catch.
The Bucs got one first down on the ensuing drive on a third-down sideline catch by Humphries, but the drive ended three plays later when Winston was sacked on third-and-long by DE Sam Hubbard. The Bengals' next drive began quickly with a 19-yard catch down the right hashmarks by Boyd and a 15-yard run by Mixon down to the Bucs' 34. Another 26-yard catch-and-run by Boyd set Mixon up for a quick eight-yard scoring run up the middle.
The Bucs' next drive got an immediate boost from a personal-foul penalty when Hubbard hit a sliding Winston in the head. On the very next play, Winston went deep down the middle to Jackson, hitting him in stride for a 60-yard score. Chandler Catanzaro hooked the extra point try wide to the left to leave the score at 21-6 with five minutes left in the half.
The Buccaneers challenged the spot of a third-down catch by Erickson on the ensuing drive, and on the very next play Mixon broke into the clear for a 43-yard run down to the Bucs' 17. After a Cincinnati timeout, Dalton completed the drive with a floater to Green over Carlton Davis in the left edge of the end zone. Randy Bullock missed the extra point, so the Bengals led, 27-6, just before the two-minute warning.
Winston successfully led a two-minute scoring drive, though it disappointingly ended in three points after reaching a first down at the Bengals' seven. The big play was a 29-yard touch pass to Evans down the right sideline, and Winston also converted a key third-down with a scrambling pass to Humphries at the seven. After three incompletions, Catanzaro came on to make a 25-yard field goal with three seconds left in the half.
The Buccaneers started the second half with an extended touchdown drive. A pass interference call on Dre Kirkpatrick negated an early holding call on Ali Marpet, and Humphries made a stunning, leaping catch over the middle for 15 yards on third-and-one. Humphries also got the ball down inside the one-yard line with a catch-and-run as he fought through four defenders for an apparent score. The play was reviewed and, after it was ruled that Humphries was down at the one, Barber leapt over the pile on first down for a score.
The Buccaneers defense then did its part with a three-and-out, with S Andrew Adams nearly intercepting Dalton's third-down pass near the right sideline. The Bucs started again at their own 30 following the punt. A nine-yard Winston scramble converted a third-and-seven and a great jump-cut run by Barber on third-and-three gained another set of downs at midfield. However, Winston then sailed his next pass attempt, intended in the short left flat for TE Cam Brate, and it was intercepted by LB Jordan Evans. Tampa Bay's defense at least followed that turnover with another quick stop, with Lavonte David getting Mixon for a two-yard loss on first down and then stopping Mixon for no gain on third-and-one. Humphries fair caught the punt at the Bucs' 10-yard line.
Bates jumped Winston's attempted quick slant to Humphries and intercepted it on the run, stumbling 21 yards into the end zone to give the Bengals a 34-16 lead. Fitzpatrick came in to lead the next drive. He directed an eight-play, 55-yard drive on the next possession, the big play a 20-yard strike over the middle to Godwin. Barber also contributed a 16-yard run to get across midfield and Fitzpatrick scrambled for 18 yards on third-and-21 to set up Catanzaro's 38-yard field goal.
After another three-and-out by the defense, the Buccaneers got the ball back at their own 32 with 11 minutes left in regulation. That drive went three-and-out and the Bucs punted, needing one more defensive stop. The Bengals got their first first downs of the entire half on the ensuing drive, moving across midfield and draining much of the remaining clock. A second Pierre-Paul sack, however, helped force a punt from the Bucs' 40-yard line, which was fair caught at the 12.
The Buccaneers got the ball back with three minutes left and used two of them to drive 88 yards for the game-tying score. Evans made a brilliant catch with a defender draped on him down the left sideline for 27 yards and Humphries add 17 on the next play. The Buccaneers went for it on fourth-and-three at the Bengals' 18 and got it and more on Fitzpatrick's touchdown pass to Howard, crossing left to right. The Bucs needed a successful two-point conversion to tie the game at 34-all and got it when Fitzpatrick zipped a pass between two defenders to a prone Godwin.