Perhaps it was in famously temperate Los Angeles, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hadn't been for 26 years, that they finally learned to weather a storm.
The Buccaneers knocked the defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams from the ranks of the unbeaten on Sunday with a 55-40 win at the L.A. Coliseum. Tampa Bay built an early 21-point lead thanks to a pair of interceptions and two Chris Godwin touchdowns, then saw the Rams chip it away to one score in the second quarter. But the Bucs never actually relinquished the lead this time thanks to four takeaways, vastly improved work in the red zone, four touchdown passes by Jameis Winston and quite a bit more from Godwin.
The win evened the Bucs' record at 2-2 and improved their road mark to 2-0. Tampa Bay had blown an 18-point lead the week before at home to lose to the New York Giants, 32-31, but just as they did with a rousing Thursday Night win in Carolina in Week Two, the Bucs didn't let their disappointment linger.
"It's always going to come down to the last five minutes, and it's how we play those last five," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "You had a lead, you gave up part of it, and you got it back. It was a really, really big drive, going back and getting those points. There was no panic on our sideline; there was a lot of belief. I think we answered whether we were tough enough to handle a tough loss, because we had a great week and showed up against a good quality opponent on the road."
Not that it was easy. A 32-yard interception return for a touchdown by Rams CB Marcus Peters, on one of the very few mistakes Winston made all day, made it a 45-40 game with eight minutes still to go, representing one of the many momentum shifts in the wild game, which included 982 yards from scrimmage and 95 points. But the Bucs answered with a clutch five-minute field goal drive and when the Rams were driving in the final two minutes in an attempt to force overtime, OLB Shaq Barrett came up big once again.
Barrett, who tied an NFL record with eight sacks through the first three games of a season, got his ninth at the right time, stripping the ball from QB Jared Goff with just over a minute to play and the Rams in Buccaneer territory. DL Ndamukong Suh, who returned to the Coliseum after helping the Rams make the Super Bowl a year ago, picked up the loose ball and sprinted 37 for the game's final touchdown.
"They sealed the deal," said Arians. "Big sack-fumble [for Barrett] and also an interception that Shaq got. That was a great strip and score."
When Suh scored it marked the first time the Buccaneers had ever reached at least 50 points in game, and every score mattered.
"We always understand that we've got to play 60 minutes," said Suh. "We were in this situation last week, being up going into the half. We know we've got to come out, especially on the defensive side of the ball, after halftime and take care of business. Although we did give up some points, which we were not wanting to do so, we've got to find ways to win, especially on the road. Shaq's been playing great. He's continued to be very hot and I just glad I got the opportunity to play off him."
The Buccaneers did two things this time that they didn't in their three-week loss: They turned red zone incursions into points and they kept the pedal to the metal after getting an early lead. The Buccaneers scored five touchdowns in six red zone incursions on the day, only failing on the last possession that led to Gay's 21-yard field goal.
More importantly, the Bucs didn't let their opponent storm all the way back this time. After the Rams scored twice in the second quarter to trim the lead to 21-14, the Buccaneers came right back with a 75-yard drive before halftime. And when Los Angeles ended the first half and started the second one with field goals to pull within eight, Gay was sent out to try a 58-yarder. He nailed it for another two-score lead, and appreciated another pressure chance after he had missed a potential 34-yard game-winner against the Giants in Week Three.
"I was extremely happy to get the opportunity," said Gay. "The confidence that Bruce has in me, the trust he has in me to send me out for that long one, especially after last week, that's huge for a kicker, to know that your coach and your team is behind you. I just went through my process and made sure that kick went through, and I think that was a big momentum swing for our offense to get things going."
In addition to his critical sack at game's end, Barrett also had his first career interception in the third quarter, leading to a Cam Brate touchdown catch and a new 18-point lead. Jordan Whitehead and Lavonte David also picked off passes on consecutive Rams drives in the second quarter, and both of those led to Chris Godwin touchdowns.
"[The win] was huge," said Brate. "Long trip, going against the defending NFC Champions – I don't think too many people had the Bucs winning this one. We had belief in the locker room and obviously we came out firing in the first quarter. We had a little bit of a lull but we [came back strong]."
Godwin, who was limited for most of the week in practice by a hip injury, finished the game with a career-high 12 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He was Winston's favorite target, but the Bucs' passer also made a key play with a 67-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans in the fourth quarter that represented another huge momentum swing. Winston finished with four touchdown passes, 385 yards and a 120.5 passer rating.
"It's football, anything can happen," said Evans. "They stormed back when we were up 18 in the fourth and almost had a chance to tie it up. But the defense came through and the offense put enough points on the board."
The Buccaneers scored first, helped by a game-opening kickoff that went out of bounds, allowing the drive to start at their own 40. Winston quickly moved the offense down the field, hitting all three of his passes, including two to Godwin for 35 yards. Godwin's second catch put the ball at the three and Barber ran it in two plays later.
That score held into the second quarter but the Rams took their second drive into Bucs possession and were threatening until Barrett once again found his way to the quarterback. This time, his hit on Goff forced an off-target wobbler that Whitehead intercepted and returned to the Bucs' 35, with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Rams WR Robert Woods tacking on 15 more to midfield.
Tampa Bay turned that into a second touchdown drive and a 14-0 lead five minutes into the second quarter, with Chris Godwin catching two passes on the seven-play drive, one a tackle-breaking 30-yarder down to the three-yard line and one a leaping three-yard TD catch near the right edge of the end zone.
Three plays later, David intercepted a third-down pass intended for TE Gerald Everett and returned it to the Rams' nine yard line. Winston looked to Godwin again, this time a quick screen on the right sideline, and Godwin powered his way to the right front pylon for another touchdown and a 21-0 Bucs lead.
The Rams did get on the board on the ensuing possession, driving 75 yards on eight plays, including three straight completions over the middle to Everett to get the ball to the Bucs' 23. After a pass-interference call on Whitehead on a wheel route to Gurley, the Rams' back powered it in from 13 yards out to make it 21-7 with 5:34 left in the first half.
A three-and-out and a fair-catch-interference penalty on Sean Murphy-Bunting gave the ball back to the Rams almost immediately at midfield and Woods danced down the sideline for 37 yards on the next play. A roughing-the-passer penalty on Carl Nassib made it first-and-goal at the five and Goff hooked up with Everett yet again in the end zone to make it a one-score game.
The Bucs managed to slow down the Rams' sudden momentum with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive ending in Jones' six-yard run up the middle for his first touchdown of the season. Winston grabbed control back by wisely returning to Chris Godwin, who caught three passes for 36 yards on the drive, two on third down and all producing first downs.
The Rams had 45 seconds left to work with after Jones' touchdown and used it to maneuver into position for a 58-yard field goal try by Greg Zuerlein. The Rams' strong-legged kicker made it to cut the Bucs' lead to 11 points at the half.
Zuerlein then made it an eight-point game with a 44-yard field goal at the end of the Rams' drive to open the second half. However, the Bucs pushed it back to a two-score game with an answering field goal drive, with Gay drilling a 58-yarder at the end of a 10-play drive. The Rams got across midfield on the next possession but coughed it up when Barrett intercepted a short pass intended for RB Malcolm Brown on a fourth-and-two gamble.
That set up another half-field touchdown drive for the Buccaneers, who used yet another Godwin catch and 24 rushing yards from Jones to set up a 13-yard touchdown catch by Cameron Brate on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Rams fired back with another 75-yard scoring drive, this one ending in Gurley's second touchdown, a five-yard run up the gut.
Not daunted, the Bucs restored their 18-point lead just 56 seconds later. After one five-yard run by Jones Tampa Bay stayed in a heavy package but Winston faked a handoff and threw deep to Evans, who had gotten behind the defense. Evans hauled it in and danced into the end zone for a 67-yard score. Keeping the second-half shootout in high gear, the Rams went 75 yards on just two minutes and 23 yards, with Cooper Kupp scoring on a 29-yard catch and run with 9:12 left.
Moments later, Peters' interception and 32-yard scoring return, capped by a successful two-point conversion, trimmed Tampa Bay's lead to just five points with eight minutes left in regulation. The Rams went for two to try to pull within a field goal but Goff's pass was incomplete. Godwin had another key 18-yard catch on the ensuing possession as the Bucs tacked on Gay's field goal, and then the huge defensive play by Barrett and Suh put the game out of reach.