The New York Jets gave the ball back to their old nemesis, Tom Brady, on Sunday with a four-point lead, 2:11 left in regulation, no timeouts for the Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 93 yards of grass between the ball and the opposite end zone.
They probably shouldn't have done that. One minute and 56 second later, the Buccaneers had their very first lead of the game in what would prove to be a 28-24 Buccaneers win.
"We've been in crazy situations before but this was a very special one," said Arians. "To come back and win this game, just talking about how the defense jumped up there and stopped them at the end. And then we've got Tom, and that's all you need."
After rookie OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka stopped Jets rookie QB Zach Wilson on a fourth-and-two sneak from the Buccaneers' seven, Brady drove his team all 93 of those yards, ending in a 33-yard touchdown pass to WR Cyril Grayson near the right front pylon. It was the Buccaneers' second-longest touchdown march of the season and one of the most memorable drives in franchise history, but it wasn't exactly something new for Brady. Sunday's ending marked the 53rd game-winning drive of his career and his 42nd fourth-quarter comeback.
"I can't say enough [about Brady]," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Tom did a great job of just taking what they were giving us. We knew we had to have a chunk in this drive. He pumped the safety over and got Cyril [open]. I was really happy for Cyril. He's worked his ass off and he's really coming through for us."
In fact, Brady has done this specifically to the Jets before – this marked the sixth game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback he's launched against New York. The result was Tampa Bay's first-ever road win against the Jets after seven previous fruitless attempts dating back to 1976, and it came against a New York team that showed a great amount of fight despite their now 4-12 record.
"To be down 14 points and to come back and win is a great thing," said Brady. "You'd rather be ahead but we just didn't get ahead. You know, they played good. I give them a lot of credit – they played good on defense, they played really well, they stopped our run game at different times, did a good job pressuring us in the pocket. They did a good job on offense with their run game."
The Bucs rallied from a 14-point third-quarter deficit as the defense got two consecutive three-and-outs in the fourth quarter and also gave the ball back to Brady at the end when the Jets elected to go for it and end the game rather than settling for a short field goal and a seven-point lead. Brady threw for 410 yards and three scores, also connecting with Mike Evans for a four-yard touchdown on the team's first drive of the game and then converting a fourth-and-goal in the third quarter with another four-yard touchdown pass to Cam Brate.
"We got behind and we literally played from behind the entire day until 59 minutes and 45 seconds," said Brady. "We never got a lead. Our defense came up with a huge stop there at the end to give us a chance to go  yards. We got a great stop by our defense and that gave us a chance with two minutes left. We've talked about those situations a lot, and a lot of guys came through and made some huge plays. It was just a great team win."
The win improved the Buccaneers to 12-4, matching the 2002 Super Bowl-winning team for the most regular-season victories. Tampa Bay also kept pace with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC seeding race, as L.A. won a one-point decision in Baltimore on Sunday to get to 12-4. The 11-4 Dallas Cowboys were due to play the Arizona Cardinals later in the afternoon. The Buccaneers will wrap up their regular season next Sunday at Raymond James Stadium against the Carolina Panthers.
The stunning ending to Sunday's victory in the Meadowlands was also the conclusion of a crazy and unprecedented week for the Buccaneers overall. Head Coach Bruce Arians coached the game despite being away from the team all week due to a positive COVID test. Cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting traveled separately from the team on Sunday after being activated from the COVID list on Saturday and didn't arrive at MetLife Stadium until 15 minutes before kickoff. And then, most stunningly, wide receiver Antonio Brown chose to leave the sideline in the third quarter, stripping off his jersey before heading into the locker room. Brown did not return to the sideline, nor he will return to Buccaneers headquarters.
"He is no longer a Buc," said Arians. "Alright? That's the end of the story. Let's talk about the guys that were out there and won the game."
Dean and Murphy-Bunting didn't arrive at MetLife Stadium until 15 minutes before kickoff following the original pilot of their flight calling in sick and the flight itself apparently diverting through Canada at one point. Neither started but both saw action in the game, though it wasn't easy to join in the action midstream.
"The hardest part was really just jumping into the game and getting my flow going while everybody else already got their rhythm going," said Dean. "So I tried to stay focused in the game and relax. After a few plays, I kind of calmed down. The outcome was hard because the Jets, they came to play. They probably treated it like this was their Super Bowl and what better way to go out knowing that you beat the former Super Bowl champions. So they gave us their best game."
The Buccaneers scored on their opening drive of the game but then struggled on both sides of the ball through the rest of the first half. The offense added just one more field goal before the intermission and Brady threw an interception on an attempted deep pass to Evans late in the second quarter, allowing the Jets to tack on a late field. Tampa Bay's defense didn't get a three-and-out or a sack until the fourth quarter and notched its only takeaway on a fumble on the Jets' desperation pitch play at the end of regulation.
The Jets also outrushed the Buccaneers, 150 yard to 62, and running backs Ronald Jones (ankle) and Ke'Shawn Vaughn (ribs) both suffered injuries in the second half, leaving the recently-signed Le'Veon Bell to score on a two-point converion and made it a four-point game after Grayson's touchdown. Tampa Bay began to show signs of frustration early in the second half, as both Ryan Jensen and Ali Marpet drew post-whistle penalties on consecutive drives, but were able to group and raise their level of play down the stretch.
"It's great to keep winning," said Arians. "Hopefully we'll come back next week and match the Panthers' energy in the first half. We didn't do that today."
Gronkowski led the team with seven catches for 115 yards, in part, according to Arians, because the Jets' defensive approach created a lot of matchups between the tight and and Jets linebackers. Grayson, elevated from the practice squad for the game, had his second straight big game, catching a career-high six passes for 81 yards. Brady connected on passes totaling 30 or more yards to six different players, including Bell, Breshad Perriman and Tyler Johnson
The Buccaneers were favored by double-digit points against the Jets, who came into the game with the 32nd-ranked defense in terms of both points and yards allowed. But New York played an inspired game and Brady and the Bucs had to fight to the end to get the win. Brady says it won't be the last time this season his team will have to overcome a serious amount of adversity.
"I'm really proud of the effort that our guys gave throughout the day," said Brady. "Again, you go on the road, you get behind and we faced different adversities throughout the day but we found a way to win in the end. A great drive by our offense in the end, a great stop by our defense. Every team faces different things over the course of a long season. I'm sure we'll face difficult things going forward and we're just going to do the very best we can do with the opportunities we're presented."
Two snap into the first drive, the Jets broke off the game's first big play. Rookie RB Michael Carter broke free over right tackle and dashed down the right sideline for 55 yards. Antoine Winfield, Jr. fought through a block to trip Carter up at the 12 but a tunnel screen to Berrios two plays later made it first-and-goal at the one. The Jets punched it in on second goal with a nifty reverse to WR Braxton Berrios.
The Bucs answered with a methodical 13-play touchdown drive that covered 75 yards and ended in Evans' four-yard touchdown catch on a back-shoulder fade. The Bucs converted two short third downs early with a catch by Evans and a run by Jones up the middle, then kept the drive alive on third-and-six on Bell's first catch as a Buccaneer, getting 15 yards to the Jets' 33. Two Vaughn runs for 14 runs plus a facemask penalty after the first one made it second-and-goal at the four before Brady delivered a perfect pass to Evans near the end zone sideline.
Wilson then led the Jets on another long drive that leaked into the second quarter. RB Austin Walter broke off a 14-yard run into Bucs territory and Wilson converted three straight third downs with sharp passes over the middle, the third one a 12-yard strike to TE Kenny Yeboah on third-and-10 to get the ball to the 15. After the teams switched sides, the Jets faced another third down at the nine and converted once again with an out to Berrios, who turned it into his second touchdown by diving at the right pylon.
The Bucs got back into Jets territory quickly with a juggling 31-yard catch by Evans on the second play of the ensuing drive. Brown got his man lost on a comebacker on the next play and Brady found him for a 21-yard gain down to the Jets' 23. The drive stalled without another first down, however, and the Bucs settled for three points on Succop's 39-yard field goal with 11 minutes left in the half.
The Bucs' defense as badly fooled on the first play of the Jets' next drive, getting TE Daniel Brown wide open on the right side for a gain of 24. Mike Edwards and Winfield broke up deep pass attempts on consecutive plays and Vita Vea chased Wilson into a third-down throwaway.
Kenjon Barner fair caught the game's first punt at the Bucs' 10-yard line, and Jones got the next drive started with a spinning seven-yard run up the middle. A 21-yard completion to Gronkowski on a crossing route got the ball close to midfield but a delay of game penalty and a third-down sack by cornerback Michael Carter forced a punt shortly after.
A sliding catch over the middle by Yeboah got the Jets across midfield with 90 seconds to play in the half. However, the Jets got no further than the 42 before punting with a minute to go. The ball went out of the bounds at the 10 with 54 seconds left. Though they owned just one timeout the Bucs chose to use that time aggressively and catches of 24 and 14 yards by Gronkowski got the ball across midfield. However, when Brady tried to hit a home run to Evans down the left sideline an underthrown ball was easily intercepted by Brandin Echols, who returned it to New York's 48 with 16 ticks left on the clock.
Ty Johhnson took a swing pass and turned it up the sideline to get out of bounds at the Bucs' 33. Carlton Davis nearly intercepted Wilson's next pass and with six seconds left the Jets brought out Eddy Pineiro to try a 51-yard field goal. He nailed it and New York took a 17-10 lead into the locker room.
The Bucs started the second half at their own 25 after a touchback and quickly fell into a third-and-seven after two Jones runs and had to burn a timeout after some confusion on third down. However, Brady found Grayson down the left hashes on the next snap and he converted with a nine-yard gain. Unfortunately, an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Jensen two plays later put the Bucs into third-and-20 and Brady's deep shot to Evans fell incomplete. The resulting punt was fair caught at the Jets' 34.
After getting a first down near midfield the Jets dialed up a perfectly-timed screen to Johnson and it worked for 23 yards into Bucs territory. A diving catch by Berrios just past the hand of Jamel Dean got 11 more and then Wilson found Cole at the Bucs' one-yard line. Johnson punched it in two plays later to give the Jets a 14-point lead midway through the third quarter.
An unnecessary roughness flag on Marpet helped put the Bucs into a third-and-20 hole to open the next possession, but Brady impressively converted that with a 20-yard deep out to Grayson right at the sticks. Gronkowski broke a tackle for a 14-yard gain two plays later and Evans converted a third-and-seven with a drag route across the middle for eight yards. Brady then hit Johnson on a deep post for 32 yards down to the seven. Two plays later it was third-and-goal at the four and a high pass at the back of the end zone went through the hands of a leaping Gronkowski. The Bucs went for it on fourth-and-goal and Brady fired a dart into Brate's gut for the touchdown.
Tampa Bay's defense followed with a much-needed three-and-out, it's first of the game, keyed by Nelson's 10-yard sack on third down. The Bucs got it back at their own 37 and got a quick nine yards on a catch by Perriman. Two Vaughn runs got 15 yards and took it down to the Jets' 39. Two shots downfield failed to connect, however, and the Bucs punted from that spot.
The kick was fair caught at the Jets' nine with 12 minutes left in regulation. The defense got another quick three-and-out led by Devin White's disruption of a second-down pass, and Jets punter Braden Mann got just 38 yards on the resulting punt. Brady instantly got the Bucs into scoring range with a 31-yard crosser to Gronkowski. Brady then converted a critical third-and-seven with a swing pass to Bell that turned into a 12-yard gain down to the 11. Johnson couldn't quite hang on to a diving catch at the one on third down and the Bucs brought on Succop to hit a 27-yard field goal at nearly the exact midpoint of the fourth quarter.
The Jets got across midfield on an 11-yard end-around by Berrios. New York then faced a third-and-two at the Bucs' 41 and Walter knifed over left guard for three yards and a first down as the clock hit the four-minute mark. Johnson got it into the red zone on the next snap as he burst over left tackle and was brought down 22 yards later at the 15. The Bucs used one of their two remaining timeouts after a one-yard loss by Johnson, with 3:07 left. Berrios made a sliding catch on third down but came up two yards short of the sticks. The Jets called a timeout with 2:17 and then tried a quarterback sneak but Wilson was stopped short.
That gave the ball back to Brady with 2:11 left, no timeouts and 93 yards between him and the other end zone. Four underneath completions got the ball past the 30 but also drained one of the remaining two minutes. Two plays later, Brady found Johnson down the right seam for 27 yards and after one more short pass to Grayson found him again for the go-ahead score with 15 second left. The Bucs went for two and got a four-point lead when Bell ran up the gut for the score.