One of the most incredible comeback wins in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 36-year history didn't only erase a 17-point halftime deficit at Mall of America Field on Sunday, it potentially changed the outlook on the 2011 season.
No one in the Buccaneers' camp would have been crying doom after an 0-2 start, but there's no denying that 1-1 and a first-place tie in the ultra-competitive NFC South is far better, with a home date against Atlanta looming in one week. And surely nobody could argue with a straight face that a win such as Sunday's won't provide a serious emotional boost to the NFL's youngest team.
Trailing 17-0 at halftime, the Buccaneers mounted a stunning rally to leave Minneapolis with a 24-20 victory; along the way pulling out a successful surprise onside kick; shutting down a Viking offense that looked unstoppable before the intermission; and quieting a Minnesota crowd that had been in full-throat for most of three quarters.
The heroes were expected (LeGarrette Blount) and unexpected (Preston Parker), but once again it all began with the Buccaneers' precocious 23-year-old franchise quarterback. After a first half in which he got little help from the running game, faced constant pressure and completed just seven of 11 passes, Freeman was masterful in the second half, and particularly in the final period. The Bucs trailed by 10 points with less than 10 minutes to play, but Freeman directed touchdown drives of 80 and 61 yards to produce his eighth come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter or overtime in just 27 career starts. That's the most in the history of the NFL in a player's first 30 starts.
Blount gave the Bucs their first lead of the game with a four-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds remaining. He finished the game with 71 yards and two scores on 13 carries, and after his last run the Bucs' defense had only to stop one last desperation attempt by the Vikings to seal the team's first win of the year.
Freeman completed 15 of 21 passes for 191 yards in the second half and overcame his only real miscue, an interception in the end zone in the third quarter as the comeback was just gaining steam. True to form, Freeman remained composed and completed eight of 11 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown in the fourth quarter.
In the end, the Bucs tied for their second-largest comeback ever, overcoming that 17-point deficit for the fifth time in their 36 seasons. The only larger comeback in franchise annals was from 21 points down in a win at Kansas City on November 2, 2008. Amazingly, the Buccaneers have now overcome eight double-digit deficits to produce victories since 2008, the most by any team in that span.
At halftime, the Bucs not only trailed by three scores but were down in total yardage, 284 to 62, and first downs, 17-3. But the defense got a stop to open the second half and then the Bucs' offense woke up in a big way. Starting at the Minnesota 44 after a short punt, Freeman threw a 17-yard rollout pass to rookie TE Luke Stocker then handed it off to Blount, who burst through a gap for a 27-yard touchdown.
Head Coach Raheem Morris then dialed up an onside kick and CB Elbert Mack recovered for the Buccaneers at their own 47. Freeman drove the Bucs down into the red zone again but then tried to force a pass in to TE Kellen Winslow and it was intercepted by S Husain Abdullah. But the Bucs' defense forced another punt and Freeman directed a 52-yard drive to produce Connor Barth's 36-yad field goal.
The big play on that drive was a 51-yard catch-and-run by second-year man Preston Parker, who was assuming a bigger role in the offense with WR Sammie Stroughter out. Parker turned in a series of critical catches and finished with seven grabs for 98 yards. He also pitched in 97 yards in the return game, including a 30-yard kickoff return that he nearly broke for the distance.
Parker caught three passes during the game-winning drive, including a third-down catch inside the 10 that set up Blount's game-winner. RB Earnest Graham who had 39 combined rushing and receiving yards, continued to excel in the third-down back role, contributing several key plays to the final drive.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense allowed just 114 yards after halftime, playing far better in the second half for the second week in a row. Rookie LB Mason Foster shook off a bout of cramps to lead the team with 10 tackles, plus one sack, one tackle for loss, one quarterback pressure and one forced fumble. S Sean Jones pitched in seven tackles and the Bucs other sack and also recovered the final loose ball at the end of the game as the Vikings tried to pitch it around the length of the field.
On special teams, new punter Michael Koenen continued to make a big difference. As the kickoff specialist, he produced two more touchbacks plus the successful onside kick. The two kickoffs he didn't blast out of the back of the end zone might have been the best, as in both occasions the Viking return man was stopped inside the 10-yard line, including the final one when Percy Harvin had trouble holding onto the ball. Koenen also finished with a gross average of 45.8 and a net average of 45.0 on four punts, with no touchbacks and one downed inside the 20.
The Buccaneers remained in a first-place tie with New Orleans in the South with the victory, as the Saints defeated the Chicago Bears on Sunday. Carolina lost to Green Bay to fall to 0-2 and the Atlanta-Philadelphia game was scheduled for later in the day.
A field-position battle dominated much of the first quarter. Minnesota got over midfield on its first possession on runs of 11 and 10 yards by Peterson, but eventually punted down to the Bucs' eight. Freeman's 18-yard pass to Winslow got the Bucs just into Viking territory on the next drive but they too had to punt, with a fair catch executed at the 10.
However, the Vikings scored just before the end of the opening period, as Peterson concluded a 90-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run. Gerhart's 31-yard run was the longest play of the march but Peterson ran on three straight carries once the Vikings got inside the 10, and he scored on a hard-nosed third-down run over right guard.
The Bucs punted it back minutes later, and while Koenen's high 52-yard punt helped reverse the field position, the Vikings took off on another long drive. This one was preserved by McNabb's legs, as he scrambled for 13 yards on a third-and-12 near midfield after being flushed from the pocket. Consecutive strikes of 19 yards to Harvin and 15 to Shiancoe got the ball to the Bucs' six, but Tampa Bay held there and the Vikings settled for Ryan Longwell's 22-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead with five minutes left in the half.
A three-and-out by the Bucs' offense allowed Minnesota to mount one more scoring drive before halftime. LB Mason Foster recorded the Bucs' first sack of the season to help put the Vikings into a third-and-16 near midfield but Gerhart's 42-yard catch-and-run on a perfect screen pass converted that and put the ball at the four. Peterson ran it in two plays later for a nine-yard score.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Friday night's game.)
The Vikings started the second half at their own 20 after Koenen executed two straight touchback kicks, the second necessitated by an offside call on the coverage team. McCoy got the defense started well with a nice tackle on Peterson for a gain of just one, and then McCoy prevented a big play on second down with another tackle on a six-yard run. False start and holding penalties pushed the Vikings back to their own 12, and a draw to Peterson on third-and-18 got just five yards.
Parker made an impressive running catch of Chris Kluwe's knuckling line-drive punt and got back to Minnesota's 44 for the Bucs' best starting field position of the game to that point. A rollout pass to rookie TE Luke Stocker gained 17 yards, as Stocker did a full flip in the air after being hit low. Freeman handed it to Blount heading right on the next play and the back shot through the line untouched. He outran one final Minnesota defender and dived into the end zone to make it 17-7 just four minutes into the second half.
That's when Morris made a gutsy call, ordering an onside kick that worked when CB Elbert Mack scrambled for the loose ball at the Bucs' 47. On the next snap, Blount used his patented hurdle move to gain 13 yards on a run to the left. Two plays later, the Bucs faced a third-and-10 but Freeman converted it by finding Parker over the middle for a gain of 17 to the Vikings' 23. On second-and-seven from the 20, the Bucs called a rollout right at the perfect time as the Vikings blitzed off that edged, and it resulted in a first-down catch at the 12 by Winslow. Unfortunately, Freeman's next attempt to Winslow went right to S Husain Abdullah, who intercepted it in the end zone and returned it to the Vikings' 30.
The Vikings got the ball close to midfield on the next play, a 15-yard pass to WR Bernard Berrian. The Bucs' defense won the next three plays, however, and forced a punt. LB Geno Hayes hit Peterson in the backfield for a loss of three, LB Dekoda Watson knocked away a pass intended for TE Jim Kleinsasser and blitzing S Sean Jones sacked McNabb for a loss of 10. Kluwe boomed a 52-yard punt but Parker's tip-toeing return on the sideline got it back to the Bucs' 30.
Now finding a groove, Blount ran for eight and five yards to start the drive, but the second one was called back by holding, making it second-and-12. The Vikings' defense defended a screen to Graham perfectly and it lost five yards, though an offside call gave those yards back on the next snap (and erased a lost fumble in the process). On third-and-12, Freeman found Parker on a crossing route and the young receiver eluded one tackler and broke free down the sideline for a 51-yard gain to the Minnesota 21. Williams made an amazing leaping touchdown catch two plays later but it was erased on an illegal shift penalty. The drive stalled at the 18, but Connor Barth's 36-yard field goal brought the Bucs back within one score.
Another Koenen touchback put Minnesota at its own 20 on the next drive, and two passes to Harvin led to a first down at the 31. Peterson followed with runs of nine and five yards, and McNabb escaped a sack and ran for two yards on the next first down. McNabb looked down the middle of the field for Harvin on the next play, and though Foster got there to break it up he was flagged for pass interference. Now holding a first down at the Bucs' 30, the Vikings gave it to Harvin on an end-around and he got another first down at the 20. After earning a first-and-goal at the 10, the Vikings lost a yard on a Peterson run and Watson broke up a flare-out pass on second down. A perfectly-timed blitz by Jones blew up the third-down play before it could develop and the Vikings had to settle for Longwell's second field goal, a 29-yarder. Still, that pushed the home team's lead back to two scores with 9:41 to play.
After a touchback, Freeman looked down the left seam to Winslow but it was just a little out of reach. Blount powered for eight yards on second down, and Freeman scrambled for just enough to move the sticks on the next play. Freeman converted another short third down with a QB sneak, then made a fantastic play on the next snap to get the ball down to the 25. Rolling right, he threw back to the middle to Briscoe, who leaped high in the air to come down with a 19-yard gain. A 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty on Jared Allen moved the ball to the 25, and on the next play Freeman faked a handoff and threw deep down the left sideline to Benn for the score.
RB Lorenzo Booker elected to bring Koenen's next kick out and was swarmed over by the Bucs' cover team at the nine. However, a one-handed catch by Shiancoe and a seven-yard Peterson burst up the middle created some breathing room at the 22. Crowder leaped to bat away McNabb's next pass and, two plays later, the Bucs blitzed on third-and-six. That left CB E.J. Biggers in one-on-one coverage with WR Devin Aromashodu on a fly, and Biggers was up to the task, knocking the ball away at the last minute. Kluwe's punt went out of bounds at the Bucs' 39 with 4:12 left in regulation.
Freeman looked twice more to his new favorite target to start the drive and Parker got consecutive gains of nine yards to the Minnesota 43. Freeman then found Winslow for 14 more yards and a Graham draw play was good for five more to the 24. Graham was the target on second down, too, catching an eight-yard pass over the middle that made it first down at the 16 as the two-minute warning arrived.
After the break in action, Freeman faked a draw to Graham and tried to hit Winslow down the seam, but it was almost intercepted. Graham did get the ball on the next snap and weaved through the pack for six yards. Freeman found Parker again on third down over the middle and Parker stretched the ball out for a six-yard gain and a first down at the four. With just less than a minute left, the Bucs had time to bring in Blount and a big package, and he took all the drama out of it with a tackle-breaking touchdown run on first down.
That left the Vikings with 31 seconds left and a four-point deficit, and it got harder when Harvin bobbled the ensuing kickoff, and just picked it up off the ground before he was tackled at the 10. The Vikings ran three desperation plays, the last one reminiscent of the Buccaneers' own multiple-flip effort at the end of last week's game against Detroit, but they couldn't even get it to midfield.
Game Notes: The Vikings still lead the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 31-21, but the Bucs have won the last five in a row. The Bucs are now 8-18 in Minnesota. … Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson passed Chuck Foreman to become the Vikings' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with his one-yard scoring run in the first period. That was the 53rd rushing TD of his career; he finished with 120 yards on 25 carries and also hit the 6,000-yard mark for his career during the game. … TE Kellen Winslow caught four passes for 44 yards, extending his streak to 78 consecutive games played with at least one reception. That's the third-longest active streak among tight ends in the NFL. … WR Preston Parker's 51-yard reception in the third quarter is the longest of his young NFL career. Parker finished the game with seven catches for 98 yards, both career highs. … Prior to Sunday's game, the Buccaneers' last successful onside kick occurred on December 13, 2009 against the New York Jets. That one was also recovered by CB Elbert Mack.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, RB Allen Bradford, S Larry Asante, CB Myron Lewis, CB Anthony Gaitor, T Demar Dotson and T James Lee. Stroughter, Lewis and Lee were out due to injury.
The Vikings declared these seven inactives: CB Brandon Burton, S Mistral Raymond, C Brandon Fusco, DE Adrian Awasom, T DeMarcus Love, WR Greg Camarillo and DE D'Aundre Reed. Only Awasom was out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DE Michael Bennett sustained a mild ankle injury in the first quarter but was able to return a series later.
For the Vikings, CB Chris Cook sustained a groin injury in the third quarter and did not return.