Bruce Arians called it a "huge game" and urged his players to adopt a playoffs mentality, four weeks before the postseason is actually due to begin. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers heeded their head coach's words and came back from their bye week with a hard-fought 26-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at Raymond James stadium. That much-needed victory gives the Buccaneers a significantly better chance to still be playing a month from now.
"It's huge," echoed Arians after his team had secured that victory. "We had to do this. It was a big game for us. Guys did their jobs. They rested, they took care of the virus. We came back clean, healthy and it showed up today. We were a very fresh team, I thought, in the fourth quarter."
The win halted a two-game losing streak just before the bye and improved Tampa Bay's record to 8-5, which will keep them in the NFC's sixth playoff seed for another week. It also puts them in position to potentially climb one spot higher over the final three weeks. By defeating the Vikings, in particular, the Buccaneers gained a head-to-head tiebreaker and kept Minnesota, which had won five of their last six, from passing them in the standings. The Buccaneers are now one game ahead of the 7-6 Arizona Cardinals, with the previously-streaking Vikings dropping to 6-7 and out of the playoff picture at the moment.
"We got the tiebreaker on these guys and this is a good football team," said Arians. "They're going to win some games down the stretch. We're one day at a time and that's what I just told the guys. It was a great win because it started on Tuesday. We had great practices on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday."
The Buccaneers will finish the season with home and away contests against Atlanta sandwiched around a trip to Detroit. After the critical win over the Vikings, three more victories would put the Bucs in the playoffs and even two makes it a likelihood, though the Bucs will know focus exclusively on their trip to Atlanta in Week 15.
"Winning in the NFL's tough," said QB Tom Brady, who threw touchdown passes to Scotty Miller and Rob Gronkowski in the victory. "I've been doing this a long time; there are no easy games. Every one's a battle and this is a team that had won … five of six. They've been in a lot of games and are very competitive. They have some great players on offense, some really dynamic players on defense, especially in the secondary, and it was just good to get a win. It feels good. By the end of tonight we'll kind of move on and get ready for Atlanta and go there. It's going to be the biggest game of our season."
The Buccaneers did not get the fast start they had been seeking coming out of the bye, with Minnesota controlling the action early with a pair of long drives powered by the legs of running back Dalvin Cook. The Bucs ran just five offensive plays in the first quarter and by halftime the Vikings had more than double Tampa Bay's time of possession.
However, the home team went into that halftime with a 17-6 lead, thanks to a string of big third-down plays on defense and some serious struggles by Minnesota placekicker Dan Bailey. The Bucs took their first lead on a precise, arcing 48-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Miller midway through the second quarter, then were able to tack on 10 more points before the intermission. Third-down sacks of QB Kirk Cousins by Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh and an acrobatic third-down pass break-up by Carlton Davis resulted in four first-half Minnesota drives into scoring range creating just one touchdown.
Before the half, a goal-line pass interference call drawn by Mike Evans set up a one-yard Ronald Jones touchdown leap, and another pass interference flag on a last-second 'Hail Mary' pass allowed Ryan Succop to add a 19-yard field goal before the break. Brady and the Bucs only had 21 seconds and one timeout to work with when they got the ball back at their own 28 just before halftime but Arians chose to play the situation aggressively. The Bucs had used their first two timeouts to try to get the ball back.
"When they ran the ball, I didn't think there was enough time," said Arians. "I thought there was enough time for us to either try a punt block or try to get a return. We just missed the return. Tom did a great job of executing and getting us up there for the Hail Mary. We got the call and got the three points and came right back with a touchdown [to start the second half]. Anytime you get that double-score it's huge."
The Buccaneers also had the ball to start the second half and used it to drive for a third straight score. This one was a two-yard touchdown pass to TE Rob Gronkowski after a long catch down the left sideline by Mike Evans. The Vikings would pull back to within nine points on an Irv Smith touchdown late in the third quarter but that was as close as they would get as the Buccaneers' defense turned up the heat with repeated blitzes and four of their six sacks in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings finished the game with a 39:03-20:57 edge in time of possession and 335 yards to the Buccaneers' 303. However, three missed field goals and an errant extra point by Bailey kept the Vikings from capitalizing from that ball control. After the Buccaneers took a double-digit lead, Minnesota's grind-it-out offense started to work against it. For instance, the third-quarter drive that led to Smith's touchdown drained eight-and-a-half minutes off the clock. The fourth-quarter possession that ended in Bailey's final missed field goal, drained another seven minutes.
The Vikings controlled the ball so well because Cook, the NFL's second-leading rusher, consistently gained extra yards after contact on his way to 102-yard outing. He is the first Tampa Bay opponent to record an individual 100-yard rushing game since Seattle's Chris Carson on November 3 of last season. However, he had just 24 rushing yards in the second half as Tampa Bay defenders started to make cleaner tackles, and when the Vikings finally had to get away from the ground game the Buccaneers' pass rush took over. Shaq Barrett led the way with two sacks to give him eight on the season and five in his last five games, but Antoine Winfield, Jr., Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Patrick O'Connor all pitched in with sacks as well.
"The back end did a great job holding those guys up, making Cousins hold the ball for us," said Barrett. "We had a couple of stunts that worked out pretty good that helped us get to the quarterback, and then we just had a motor to just keep going, because he was holding the ball giving us a chance to get after the quarterback."
In addition to his third sack of the season, which forced a Cousins fumble in the fourth quarter, Winfield led the team and set a career high with 11 tackles. It was his first opportunity to play against the team for which his dad played for nine seasons and for whom he grew up rooting before attending the University of Minnesota
"He and Tristan [Wirfs] should be hitting the proverbial rookie wall by now," said Arians of Winfield and his fellow 2020 draft pick, the Bucs' starting right tackle. "We joked about it all week. Both those kids are just mature beyond their years, especially in football acumen. Tristan is playing lights-out; I don't know if there's a better right tackle. And Antoine, he's just so heady. He studies. He's got his dad to lean on, he's got all the coaches to lean on and he puts his time in."
Tampa Bay's offense didn't have one of its more prolific days but Brady finished with 15 completions in 23 attempts for 196 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions thanks in large part to the play of Wirfs and the rest of the line. Brady was not sacked and was rarely pressured; for instance, his deep touchdown to Miller came after he had progressed through at least two other reads.
"I was one of the later reads; I was a deep post," said Miller, who caught the pass on a third-and-four play. "I think he was going through a flat route and an intermediate out route, and then I think he saw the one-high safety creep down and I had a one-on-one with the corner. I think he probably liked the matchup and I was able to just run right by him pretty clean."
Indeed, the Buccaneers' front line also blocked for a complimentary rushing attack that produced 107 yards on 26 carries, averaging 4.1 yards per tote. Jones led the way with 80 yards on 18 carries but LeSean McCoy, who replaced Leonard Fournette as the third-down and hurry-up back added 32 yards on four carries and also caught one pass for three yards.
The Buccaneers also had the clear edge in special teams. Though he did miss an extra point, Succop also made field goals of 18 and 48 yards, the latter of which gave the Buccaneers a more comfortable 12-point lead with four minutes to play. Succop has made 19 consecutive field goal attempts, the second-longest streak in franchise history. Punter Bradley averaged 50.3 yards on three punts, with a net of 45.3 and a long punt of 61 yards.
"I can't talk about Dan [Bailey] but I can sure talk about Ryan," said Arians. "He had a heck of a day. "I think he was shocked on the extra point that he missed but he drilled that [long field goal]. I had no doubt he would make that field goal which made it a [12-poin] game. He's been great for us all year.
It all added up to a win the Buccaneers felt they had to have to keep control of their run to their first playoff berth since 2007.
"That's all we ever wanted," said Barrett. "We just wanted to be in position to set ourselves up to be playing football in January, and we're in that position right now. To be able to control our own destiny is all you can ask for, and we've got to take advantage of it."
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 13 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.
Additional game details (scoring plays in bold):
The Vikings got the ball first and started off with a handoff to Cook for five yards. The Bucs had good coverage on second down but Cousins took off around left end for a gain of 13 yards, with five more tacked on the end due to a defensive holding penalty. The same pattern, a seven-yard Cook run and a Cousins scramble, led to a third-and-one at the Bucs' 43 and Cook easily converted around right tackle. However, the Bucs' defense then forced a third-and-four and killed the drive when Barrett trapped Cousins for a loss of eight. That sack also pushed the Vikings out of field goal range and the resulting punt rolled to a stop at the Bucs' 12.
The Bucs also started off with a healthy dose of Jones, and his first three runs plus a catch by Godwin got one first down and made it third-and-three at the 33. Brady saw Gronkowski open on a deep post but just missed the connection and the Bucs had to punt. Pinion boomed a 61-yard punt and the Bucs' forced Minnesota to start anew at their own 16.
Cousins quickly got the Vikings some breathing room with a 15-yard strike to Thielen between two defenders. Two more Cook runs got another first down at the Minnesota 31 and two plays later the Vikings were in Bucs' territory after another 15-yard catch by Thielen. The Bucs then forced a third-and-seven and an incompletion but the Vikings got another chance due to an offsides call on DL Ndamukong Suh. A draw play to Cook got just enough to move the sticks and the first quarter ended on a six-yard swing pass to RB Ameer Abdullah that made it first-and-goal at the five. Two more Cook runs, the last from the one-yard line, got the ball into the end zone for the game's first score, though K Dan Bailey subsequently missed the extra point try.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay's next drive went three-and-out when Brady overthrew Chris Godwin over the middle on third-and-seven, and Pinion's second punt was lower and shorter, giving the Vikings good field position at their own 34. It took the Vikings one play to get across midfield, with rookie WR Justin Jefferson spinning out of a tackle to pick up 17 yards on his first catch. On the very next play, Cook shot right up the middle for 12 yards to the Bucs' 37. A horse-collar tackle by Carlton Davis at the end of a short catch by Jefferson made it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 14, but the drive ended up coming up empty. Suh stopped Cook on a second-down run and then sacked Cousins on third down to force a field goal try. Bailey missed it wide to the right from 30 yards out.
The Bucs got their third drive off to a good start with Brady's play-action pass to Evans for 20 yards. Three plays on third-and-four, Brady stood in the pocket for a long time before delivering a perfect 48-yard touchdown strike down the middle to Miller. Ryan Succop's extra point gave the Bucs a 7-6 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Vikings countered with a 15-yard screen pass to TE Tyler Conklin to open the ensuing drive followed immediately by a 14-yard run by Cook to the Bucs' 46. The third play of the drive was a 13-yard rollout pass by Cousins to TE Irv Smith but the Bucs then put Minnesota into a third-and-10 situation at the 31-yard line, which became third-and-15 after a false start. Cousins nearly converted it with a deep out to Justin Jefferson but CB Carlton Davis arrived just in time to swat the ball out of the receiver's hands. The Vikings sent Bailey out to try again, this time from 54 yards, but it also missed badly to the right.
That turned the ball over to the Buccaneers at their own 44 with four-and-a-half minutes left in the first half. Brady's 16-yard completion to Godwin got the ball into Vikings territory and down to the 37. Jones converted a third-and-one with a three-yard run to the Minnesota 25 but a subsequent third-and-six dump-off to McCoy came up three yards short. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, an unnecessary roughness call on Minnesota's Harrison Smith kept the drive going. Rookie CB Jeff Gladney was then flagged for pass interference against Mike Evans at the goal line, which erased an interception and made it first-and-goal at the one. From there, Jones leapt over the top on first down for the touchdown, giving the Buccaneers a 14-6 lead with 44 seconds left in the half.
Amazingly, the Bucs were able to tack on three more points. Tampa Bay's defense forced a quick three-and-out and with the help of a couple timeouts got the ball back at their own 28 with 21 seconds left. After a nine-yard strike to Godwin, the Bucs used their last timeout with 15 seconds left. Brady then found Antonio Brown for a 16-yard gain to the Vikings' 47 and then hustled the offense up to the line for a spike with one second left. That left time for a 'Hail Mary' pass, which was successful in that it led to an end zone pass interference flag against Vikings LB Troy Davis. That gave the Bucs one more untimed down from the one-yard line and they chose to send Succop out for a 19-yard field goal to make it 17-7 at halftime.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half and immediately drove for another touchdown. The biggest play of the drive was a 29-yard sideline catch by Evans down to the Vikings' six, but McCoy set that up with a 10-yard catch and a 14-yard run. On second-and-goal from the two, Brady faked a handoff and rolled right, throwing over the top to Gronkowski in the back of the end zone for a two-yard touchdown. Succop missed the extra point to keep the Bucs' lead at 23-7.
The Bucs nearly got a three-and-out on defense on the next possession, as Suh got a hand on Cousins on third-and-six but the QB escaped and found Conklin on the left sideline for a gain of 14. The Vikings then converted one more short third down before facing a third-and-one at the Bucs' 30. Suh stopped fullback C.J. Ham short of the sticks but the Vikings went for it and Cook just stumbled across the line for the first down. Three plays later, the Buccaneers stopped Cook for just four yards on a third-and-10 screen, but the Vikings lined up to go for it on fourth-and-six, perhaps considering their kicking woes. Minnesota then burned a timeout but still went for it, and converted on Conklin's seven-yard catch over the middle. Two plays later, Cousins hit Smith inside the five-yard line and he was able to power the ball over the goal line. The Vikings went for two and got it on a quick pass down the line to Jefferson, who ran it in from two yards out to make it a 23-14 game.
The Bucs' next drive started with a false start and an incompletion. A short pass to Brown turned into an 11-yard gain on second down to make it third-and-four, but a quick pass to Miller was well defended and broken up by Gladney, resulting in a punt with one minute left in the third quarter. Pinion's punt angled out of bounds at the Vikings' 22.
Minnesota shot right out of the gate with a 25-yard pass down the left seam to Smith, which proved to be the final play of the first quarter. After flipping sides, Cousins noticed dozens of empty yards of grass in front of him and scrambled down to the Bucs' 39. S Antoine Winfield, Jr. just missed on a blitz on the next play, with Cousins getting off a nine-yard pass to Smith. A designed run up the middle for Cousins converted another third down and made it first-and-goal at the Bucs' eight-yard line. Two plays later, Winfield got home on another blitz, sacking Cousins and forcing a fumble that Cousins managed to fall on back at the 20. On third down, Barrett followed with another eight-yard sack and the Vikings had no choice but to send Bailey out for a 46-yard field goal. Bailey missed again, keeping the Bucs' lead at nine points with exactly nine minutes left.
Brady converted a third-and-eight early in the ensuing possession with a sharp sideline strike to Brown, and Jones broke free around right end on the next play for 16 yards down to the Vikings' 36. The drive stalled at the 30-yard line but Succop came on to drill a 48-yard field that increased the Bucs' lead to 12 points with just over five minutes remaining.
The Buccaneers' defense forced two incompletions to start the next drive and after a four-yard completion went for it on fourth-and-six. Cousins kept the drive alive with a 12-yard laser over the middle to Jefferson. Moments later, with 3:36 left in the game, the Vikings had to go for it on fourth down again converted again on Thielen's nine-yard grab. Thanks to a Patrick O'Connor sack, the Vikings' next fourth-down attempt needed 14 yards and never had a chance when Pierre-Paul caught a scrambling Cousins and dropped him for the Bucs' sixth sack of the game. Pierre-Paul also stripped Cousins on the play and recovered the fumble to give the Bucs the ball at Minnesota's 44 with just over two minutes left.
Two tough runs by Jones picked up 21 yards from there and allowed Brady to kneel out the rest of the clock.