The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Indianapolis Colts at their own turnover game, rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit behind four Leonard Fournette touchdowns and escaped a raucous Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday with a 38-31 victory that tight end Rob Gronkowski called a "playoff-caliber win."
"We just stuck together," said Gronkowski. "To have a win on the road like that, that's a playoff-caliber win. The atmosphere here, what a game, what an atmosphere to be a part of on football Sunday today. Just overall it was an excellent team win on the road."
It was truly a tale of two halves, as a listless Bucs squad fell behind 24-14 thanks to two long drives ending in Carson Wentz touchdown passes. But the visitors outscored the Colts 24-7 after halftime and overcame a 10-point deficit to win for the first time this season. The win also evened the Buccaneers' record at 3-3 on the road after two disappointing trips to New Orleans and Washington.
"Great win," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Coming here, this is a hard, hard place to win and [we] beat a really good playoff team that's playing good. It wasn't pretty the first 30 but it was real pretty the second 30. Good team victory – getting turnovers, scoring off turnovers. One of our better halves of football in the second half.
The Buccaneers improved to 8-3 with the win and opened up a three-game lead over both the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, who are both 5-6 after a Saints loss on Thanksgiving and the Falcons win over Jacksonville on Sunday. Tampa Bay also tied Green Bay for the second-best record in the NFL, one game behind the 9-2 Arizona Cardinals, who were idle in Week 12. Green Bay plays the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday afternoon.
"This showed what we could do if we do it on a game-in, game-out basis, no matter if we're at home or on the road," said Barrett. "We know what we can be but for some reason it's been a challenge to try to get it done on the road. We were able to make the plays that needed to be made at the right time to help us get back in the game, to help us win a game."
The Bucs' road woes seemed to be continuing early in Sunday's contest, as they did little with their first four drives and gave the ball up on a potential scoring opportunity on a Chris Godwin fumble. Tom Brady missed on his first three throws, Bradley Pinion's first punt was a shanked 14-yarder that led to a Colts field goal and the Bucs committed two costly penalties in the game's first five minutes. However, Tampa Bay's defense kept them from falling into a deep hole on the scoreboard, not allowing a single first down until two-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter.
"We played pretty solid in the first half; it was just like some plays here and there that they were able to get that extended drives or got points on the board," said OLB Shaq Barrett, who had two of the Bucs' three sacks. "[Defensive Coordinator Todd] Bowles came in and told us what had happened and what was going on and if we took those plays away we'd be right in it, and that's what we did in the second half. We took those plays away from them and our guys on defense stepped up and made some plays and helped us to the win."
The Colts had 37 total yards after gaining that initial first down but then immediately hit on a 62-yard touchdown pass to WR Ashton Dulin and would end the half with 235 yards and their 10-point lead at the intermission. The Buccaneers got the momentum back and ran away with the second half thanks to a string of defensive takeaways and the powerful work by Fournette, who tied a team record with four touchdowns in a single game.
The turning point was a Barrett strip-sack at the end of the Colts' first drive of the second half, also recovering the ball for Tampa Bay to set up a 65-yard touchdown drive. S Antoine Winfield, Jr. ended the Colts' next drive with an acrobatic interception near the Bucs' goal line, and that also preceded a 65-yard touchdown drive, this one ending in Ronald Jones' one-yard scoring run. A recovery of a muffed punt by Scotty Miller led to a 25-yard Ryan Succop field goal. Overall, the Bucs finished with a plus-three turnover ratio against a Colts team that came into the game leading the league with a plus-15 mark in that category.
"It was huge," said Arians. "We felt like if we could stop the run and make him throw it 40 times we'd get a few, and we did. [Barrett's forced fumble] was huge because they were moving it. That strip-sack, I think, chased the whole ballgame."
That field goal gave the Bucs a 31-24 lead with 10 minutes to play but the Colts were able to tie the game with a 75-yard drive that included 58 rushing yards by Jonathan Taylor, the NFL's leading rusher. Prior to that drive, Indianapolis had surprisingly called 26 straight passing plays and Taylor only 25 rushing yards in the game. He punctuated the possession with a four-yard touchdown run that tied the game with three minutes left.
Unsurprisingly, that was too much time for Brady, who engineered the 51st fourth-quarter game-winning drive of his career. Brady and Gronkowski had been a part of many big wins at Indianapolis over their years together in New England, and this one was just as satisfying.
"Oh yeah, big time," said Gronkowski. "It's such a great atmosphere football every time you come here at Lucas Oil Stadium. "Going back to win I first got in the league, let me tell you, I've always been battling the Colts, win or lose. Whenever I played them it was always a battle, they never gave up."
On the final drive, Brady relied heavily on Fournette, who had four touches for 60 yards on that possession, the last one a powerful burst over left tackle that turned into a 28-yard touchdown run with 20 seconds left on the clock. The Bucs were essentially angling for a last-second field goal; had he known Fournette would break it, Arians might have advised him to slide down at the one.
Instead, the Colts had those 20 seconds left, which probably wouldn't have mattered had Isaiah Rodgers not ripped off a 72-yard kickoff return down the left sideline. S Mike Edwards saved the Bucs with a tackle at the 32 and two plays later CB Pierre Desir intercepted Wentz's last-ditch pass at the Bucs' two-yard line.
Fournette finished the game with exactly 100 rushing yards and 131 total yards from scrimmage. Gronkowski was the focal point of the passing attack with seven catches for 123 yards. No other Bucs pass-catcher had more than 31 yards or a play longer than 13 yards.
"We had a game plan," said Fournette. "I think BA did an excellent job of rotating the backs [so] I was fresh a the end. "RoJo came in and did his job, and as a unit it was all about winning, no matter what it takes, no matter the part we played. As long as we got it done and executed, that's all that matters."
Fournette said he gave the lone locker room pep talk at halftime, a statement confirmed by several teammates.
"We came in at halftime and I had a speech for the team," he said. "I said you have to have a will and a want. You have to be willing to risk everything, play by play. You have to want to win, want to fight each and every play. And I think they understood that message and came out and played their lights out."
Indeed, the Buccaneers scored on four of their five second-half possessions and slowed down a Colts team that had won five of its last six, including an impressive 41-15 victory in Buffalo the week before. With six games left on the season, three more of them on the road, the comeback win was just what the Bucs needed to build the kind of momentum they need for another strong stretch run.
The Buccaneers got the ball first but didn't do much with it. Brady's first two passes were off-target and incomplete and a holding call coupled with a 14-yard kick on the punt allowed the Colts to start their first drive at Tampa Bay's 30-yard line. Tampa Bay's defense did limit the damage by getting off the field quickly – Vita Vea's tackle of Taylor for no gain on the first play was the key – but the Colts still started the scoring with Michael Badgley's 45-yard field goal.
Brady started the next drive with two targets to Gronkowski, the second one succeeding for a gain of 20. After getting another first down at the Colts' 39, Brady was nearly intercepted on the right sideline by CB Rock Ya-Sin. Two plays later, Godwin fumbled while trying to pick his way through the middle on a quick screen and the Colts recovered at their own 34.
The Bucs' defense got another quick stop thanks to Barrett's first-down sack, but they also lost Devin White and Jamel Dean to injuries during the sequence. An Indy punt sent the Bucs back to their 16 and one Fournette run plus two short passes failed to move the sticks. Tampa Bay punted back and pushed the Colts back to their 33.
The Bucs' defense answered the bell again, with DL Will Gholston getting a key stop of Taylor for a loss of two on second down. After the three-and-out, the Buccaneers got the ball back again at their own 17 but still couldn't find an offensive groove and punted it back without getting a first down.
Fortunately, Tampa Bay's defense followed with its first takeaway of the game, with Edwards stripping the ball from Zach Pascal and David recovering. David's return of 12 yards gave the Bucs a first down at the Colts' 34 and a pass over the middle to Gronkowski got 10 yards and another first down. One catch and one run by Fournette combined for 12 yards to the 12, and a quick dump-off to Cam Brate against a Colts blitzed worked to the tune of seven yards. After the two teams switched sides to start the second quarter, Fournette ran it twice to get a first down at the one and, after a personal-foul call on Andrew Sendejo negated a failed Brady sneak, took it in over left guard for the one-yard score.
The Bucs didn't hold the lead for long. After getting their initial first down of the game on a four-yard Taylor run, the Colts immediately got another one, and it was big. Wentz threw a very long arcing pass that Ashton Dulin caught in stride at the five and took into the end zone for a 62-yard go-ahead score.
A defensive holding flag and Jones' spinning run up the middle for 11 yards got the Bucs a first down at their own 46 but the next play was Tampa Bay's second turnover. Brady tried to throw very deep down the right sideline to Scotty Miller but it was intercepted at the 10-yard line by CB Isaiah Rodgers. Now getting into a groove, Wentz got completions over the middle of 10 yards to Nyheim Hines and 14 yards to Jack Doyle to start the ensuing drive. Barrett hit Wentz as he threw on the next drop-back, causing a dangerous wobbler, but the Colts were bailed out by a pass interference call on Sean Murphy-Bunting. Taylor got his first long run for 12 yards up the middle, though a great open-field tackle by Antoine Winfield, Jr. may have saved a touchdown. Actually, it only delayed the score. Wentz kept the drive alive with a keeper down to the 15 on fourth-and-inches and then threw a touchdown down the right sideline to Doyle.
With five minutes left in the half, Brady came out firing on the next drive, with rapid-fire strikes of seven yards to Godwin, 15 to Gronkowski and nine to Tyler Johnson. After a Fournette run made it first-and-10 at the Colts' 47, Brady gave it back to Fournette out of the shotgun and he weaved for 12 more. Brady then found Gronkowski down the middle of the field for 26 yards to make it first-and-goal at the nine. Brady then completed two straight passes to Fournette, the second one a sprint out to the left front pylon for a five-yard score.
Wentz had a little less than two minutes left to work with after that score and he worked the sidelines for a pair of quick completions and clock stoppages before Suh dropped Wentz for a five-yard sack. Tampa Bay used its first timeout to stop the clock at 1:42 with the Colts facing a second-and-15 at their 34, and Wentz's next pass deep down the middle was incomplete. However, Wentz then broke free from the pocket on third down and scrambled all the way to the midfield stripe for 16 yards on third-and-15. Three plays later, Wentz converted a third-and-10 with a 22-yard completion to Doyle on the right sideline. Facing a fourth-and-one at the four-yard line, the Colts went for it and Wentz sprinted right before firing a dart through traffic to T.Y. Hilton for the score.
Indianapolis also got the ball to start the second half and got close to midfield with a 23-yard completion to Pittman down the midde. The Bucs forced a third-and-10 after that but couldn't pressure Wentz, who eventually threw a 15-yard pass down the middle to Pittman. A 15-yard catch by rookie TE Kylen Granson got the ball down to the Bucs' 20 but Barrett came up with the visitors' second takeaway on the next snap. Barrett came around behind Wentz and swatted the ball from his hand, leading to a wild chase of the loose ball that Barrett eventually circled around to pick it up at the Colts' 35.
The Bucs faced a third-and-eight after Kwity Paye's second-down sack of Brady but kept the drive alive with a quick out to Gronkowski. The big tight end followed a block by Godwin and bounced off several tacklers to get past the line. On the next play, Brady went deep down the right side to Miller again and got a much better result than the last time. This one wasn't complete, either, but it led to a 37-yard pass interference penalty on Ya-Sin that made it first down at the 15. A 10-yard catch over the middle by Cam Brate moved it to first-and-goal, and two plays later Fournette took it in around right end for a four-yard score, his third of the game.
Tampa Bay's defense forced an early third-and-10 on the next drive but once again couldn't get off the field as a big blitz failed to stop Wentz from quickly hitting Doyle down the right numbers for 11 yards. Two plays later, however, Wentz tried to go deep again and this time Winfield made an impressive leaping catch over Pittman, the intended target, at the Bucs' five. Two sharp carries by Jones started the ensuing drive with a total of 13 yards, followed by his sweep to the right side for eight more. Brady then found Gronkowski on the right sideline and he broke a tackle and rumbled downfield for 32 yards to the Colts' 12. A pass interference call on the end zone on T.J. Carrie, defending Cam Brate, bailed the Bucs out on third-and-eight from the 10, making it first-and-goal at the one. Jones took it in up the middle on the next play to give the visitors a 28-24 lead with one minute left in the third quarter.
The Bucs' defense got the ball back quickly. A holding call set the Colts back and Jason Pierre-Paul dropped a scrambling Wentz for a gain of just two on third-and-17. After the punt, the Bucs started again at their own 38 but couldn't move the ball and had to punt it back. As it turned out, that sequence created a scoring opportunity for Tampa Bay, as Hines muffed the punt and it was recovered by Scotty Miller at the Indianapolis 19. The Bucs got one first down on a Brady sneak down to the seven but the Colts broke up passes on second and third down and Ryan Succop came on to drill a 24-yard field goal.
Down seven, the Colts finally went back to Taylor and he delivered three consecutive runs for a total of 25 yards to midfield. After one quick pass to get a first down, Wentz gave it back to Taylor two more times for gains of 10 and 15 down to the 18. A 10-yard dart to Hilton at the four converted a third-and-six and Taylor pounded it in up the middle on the next snap for the game-tying touchdown with three-and-a-half minutes left.
After a touchback, the Bucs got one quick first down on a deep out to Godwin. After a false start by Nick Leverett, a draw to Fournette picked up 11 yards to put the Bucs back ahead of the sticks as the two-minute warning arrived. After the break a sharp out to Brate got six yards and a new set of downs. A quick pass to Fournette in the right flat got 13 more and took the ball across midfield. Fournette got seven more over right guard and the Colts called a timeout with 1:07 left and then Godwin took an end-around to the right to get a new first down at the 28.
On the next play, Fournette took a handoff to the left, got around the corner, accelerated down the sideline and bulled his way through two defenders into the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown, giving the Bucs their final 38-31 lead. Tampa Bay still had to survive Rodgers' long return and a desperation pass at the end of regulation but the win was eventually secured.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 12 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts