FB Mike Alstott scored midway through the fourth quarter to cut Chicago's lead to three points, but that was as close as the Bucs got
Matt Bryant made 15 of his first 17 field goals in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform, and the Bucs believe he will make many more before it's all said and done. Bryant's third miss of the season, however, was excruciating, and about as costly as an errant kick can be.
The Bucs were on the verge of rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears when Bryant lined up for a 29-yard try. Shockingly, he pushed it a few yards to the right, sealing the Bucs' 13-10 loss at Raymond James Stadium. The defeat cost the Bucs a share of first place in the NFC South and, potentially, their best comeback in six years.
Head Coach Jon Gruden certainly didn't feel any trepidation sending Bryant onto the field, nor did he believe that one kick was responsible for the final outcome.
"After we scored to make it 13-10, he kicked the ball off very well," said Gruden of Bryant. "He just pushed it. That's unfortunate, but that's just the way it goes. That was just one play among many that could have turned the tide."
The Bucs have not erased a 10-point deficit and won since December 12, 1999, when they beat Detroit 23-16 after trailing 10-0 early. On Sunday, the Bucs were down 13-3, but this time they had less than a quarter to play and a nearly impenetrable Chicago defense to crack.
That's when third-year QB Chris Simms, quickly gaining a reputation for late-game heroics, led the Bucs on two consecutive drives deep into Chicago territory, the Bucs' two best drives of the day. The first ended in FB Mike Alstott's two-yard touchdown drive, cutting the deficit to three with exactly seven minutes remaining. The second fizzled at the 11 when Simms missed Alstott on a third-and-two pass, but it still seemed to promise a tie with the reliable Bryant jogging onto the field.
Instead, the Bucs' defense had to get one more stop with less than three minutes to play. They did, but the Bears punted with just 26 seconds remaining and there simply was no time for another drive. That was a pity, because Simms came that close to engineering his third straight come-from-behind victory. Close wins over Washington (36-35) and Atlanta (30-27) over the two previous weekends had allowed the Bucs to move into a first-place tie with Carolina in the division, but that perch at the top lasted only a week. Carolina came from behind to beat Buffalo and move to 8-3, while the Bucs dropped to 7-4 and into a second-place tie with Atlanta.
It took three plays for the Bears' defense to live up to its big-play reputation. It took the Bucs all day to recover and, with the errant kick at the end, they never quite did.
DE Alex Brown barreled over the left side of the Bucs' offensive line and reached out to swat the ball out of QB Chris Simms' hands on Simms' first drop-back of the game, early in the first quarter. The result was a fumble recovered by Chicago at Tampa Bay's one and converted into a touchdown one play later. Rookie QB Kyle Orton, who was hurried into errant throws much of the day, had no problem lofting a play-action pass to wide-open TE John Gilmore for a touchdown just four minutes into the game.
The Bears also had the game's most important offensive play, and it was turned in by a former Buccaneer. Facing a third-and-eight at their own 32, with the Raymond James Stadium turning up the volume to deafening levels, RB Thomas Jones took a perfectly-designed screen pass 41 yards to the Bucs' 27. That play led to Robbie Gould's second field goal of the game and a 10-point lead late in the third quarter. That field goal proved to be the difference in the game.
Jones finished with 72 yards on 25 carries, too, none bigger than the 10-yard run he made for a first down after Bryant's miss. That cost the Bucs about 90 seconds off the game clock and Chicago eventually punted with just 26 seconds left. The Bucs had only 15 seconds left and no timeouts when they got the ball at their own 30, and DE Adewale Ogunleye sacked Simms on first down to erase any lingering hopes.
"That was a tough one," said Gruden. "I'd like to congratulate the Bears. They're a very good football team. I'm proud of our team. They played hard and put us in a position to win.
"Three weeks in a row we've come back in some very difficult circumstances against some tough teams. I'm proud of our team."
Before the final two drives, the Bucs' offense moved the ball relatively well but repeatedly fizzled just outside of scoring range. The drive just before the 50-yard touchdown march told that story and demonstrated that the Bears have mastered the bend-but-don't-break approach that has served Tampa Bay's defense for so long. Simms masterfully executed several play-action passes to WR Joey Galloway to drive the Bucs from their own 29 to the Bears' 32, and it appeared as if the home team had finally found a way to dissect Chicago's defense.
Instead, a tackle-for-a-loss, a downfield pass break-up by Alex Brown and a sack by Ogunleye pushed the Bucs out of field goal range. The Bucs had to punt. Brown, the Bears' emerging fourth-year defensive end, was simply everywhere. His big play in the first quarter was one of two sacks to go with two tackles, four passes defensed and a forced fumble. He was particularly adept at timing his leap to knock down Simms' passes at the line of scrimmage.
Still, Simms completed 19 of 30 passes for 202 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked four times and hurried several others, but he remained poised throughout the game and consistently found his favorite target, Galloway.
Continuing a masterful season, Galloway caught seven passes for 138 yards. His 30-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter was the big play in the drive that led to Bryant's miss. Those 138 yards gave Galloway exactly 1,000 on the season; no other Buccaneer receiver has more than 323.
Rookie back Cadillac Williams was also strong for the second straight week. He carried 20 times for 84 yards, often pushing for extra real estate on hard runs up the middle. On the drive that ended in Alstott's touchdown, Williams had three touches for 14 yards, including the eight-yard run that got the ball down to the two. Another rookie turned in perhaps the biggest play on the march, as TE Alex Smith got the ball to the 29 on third-and-three with a tackle-breaking, four-yard catch. FB Mike Alstott finished the drive with his fifth touchdown in the last four games, another soaring drive over a stacked line. No play on that methodical, 11-snap march went for more than nine yards.
Unfortunately, that six-and-a-half-minute drive drained almost all of the first half of the final period. The Bucs kicked off with exactly seven minutes to play, still down by three, and the defense got the ball back on a quick three-and-out. Simms hit Galloway for that 30-yarder to start the march, then found him again for 16 yards down to the 19. On third-and-two, Simms threw to Alstott near the left sideline but missed and the Bucs had to settle for what they thought would be a game-tying field goal.
After Gilmore's game-opening score, the Bucs did answer with a scoring drive of their own in the first quarter, but they couldn't get through the Bears' defense when they got inside the red zone. Galloway made the Bears pay for stacking the line and leaving him in single coverage, beating CB Charles Tillman for a 39-yard catch down to the Bears' 11. A holding penalty pushed the Bucs back, though, and they had to settle for Bryant's 27-yard field goal.
The rest of the first half was, predictably, a defensive struggle. Tampa Bay's defense was dominant, stifling Jones and harassing Orton mercilessly, but several turnover opportunities slipped through its grasp. CB Ronde Barber dropped a sure interception and the Bucs failed to recover fumbles forced by Simeon Rice on a passing play and Torrie Cox on a punt return.
The Bucs did penetrate the Bears' side of the field another time, but when the drive stalled at the Chicago 31 the home team elected to punt, choosing field position over a 49-yard field goal attempt. The punt went into the end zone for a touchback and the Bears managed to get out to midfield before punting it back.
Tampa Bay's defense finally got its first takeaway on CB Brian Kelly's interception at the Bucs' six, but it was too late in the half for the offense to capitalize on. In fact, the Bears used all of their timeouts to force a punt, then turned their own good starting point, the Bucs' 47, into a 40-yard field goal drive just before the half.
The Bucs gained 275 yards against Chicago's top-ranked defense, including 107 on the ground. Tampa Bay's defense surrendered only 239 yards and, if not for Jones' long gain on the screen pass, would have allowed no drives of over 35 yards. After the one-yard, one-play touchdown drive, the Bears only got close to the Bucs' end zone one more time, with S Dexter Jackson diving to break up an end zone pass to WR Muhsin Muhammad.
LB Derrick Brooks led the Bucs' defense with 15 tackles and a pass defensed. Barber broke up four passes to go with five tackles and Simeon Rice and Ellis Wyms turned in the Bucs' two sacks.
The Bucs head to Baton Rouge next Sunday to play the New Orleans Saints.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers missed out on a chance to sweep their former NFC Central mates in inter-division play between the North and the South for the second time in four years. The Bucs' win over the Bears on Sunday followed victories earlier in the year against Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay. The Bucs are 8-2 against teams from the NFC North since the league was realigned in 2002. … DE Simeon Rice sacked QB Kyle Orton and forced a fumble early in the second quarter. That gave Rice at least one sack for the third straight game. He has also forced a fumble in each of those games and now has six forced fumbles on the season. The team record, shared by Broderick Thomas (1991) and Wally Chambers (1979). … CB Brian Kelly's interception in the first half was the 20th of his career, making him just the seventh player in franchise history to reach the 20-pick plateau. Kelly leads the team with four interceptions this season. … TE Dave Moore's five-yard catch for a first down in the fourth quarter was his first of the season and first since last December 26, when he caught a 10-yard pass against Carolina. … FB Mike Alstott caught two passes for 14 yards on the day. He is the only player on the team to have at least one catch in every game this season. His two grabs gave him 276 in his career and left him just four shy of moving into the Bucs' all-time top five in that category. TE Jimmie Giles currently holds down the fifth spot with 279 career receptions. S Dexter Jackson played for the first time in five games. He had missed four consecutive contests with a hamstring injury. Jackson finished with four tackles and a pass defensed.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: S Will Allen, LB Wesly Mallard, T Chris Colmer, DT Anthony Bryant, C Scott Jackson, TE Nate Lawrie, WR J.R. Russell and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay.
The Bears named the following eight players inactive: WR Airese Curry, CB Daven Holly, RB Cedric Benson, OL Qasim Mitchell, OL Steve Edwards, WR Eddie Berlin, DL Michael Haynes and designated third quarterback Rex Grossman
Injuries: The Bucs lost LB Marquis Cooper to a chest strain in the fourth quarter. He did not return.