If Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium is any indication, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't go down easy during the final two weeks of the NFC playoff race. Their path to the postseason became much tougher, however, with a 23-20 overtime loss to the Detroit Lions that dropped the Buccaneers' record to 8-6.
Tampa Bay has a home game against Seattle and a road game at New Orleans remaining and could still reach 10-6. They are trying to catch either the Saints, who lost at Baltimore on Sunday to drop to 10-4, or the New York Giants, who lost to Philadelphia to fall to 9-5. The Buccaneers are still very much alive in the playoff chase but missed out on an opportunity to improve their position significantly.
"It's certainly a gut punch but not a death blow," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We've got to find a way to get back out there. We have to put this game behind us and go on to the next game. Next Sunday can't get here fast enough."
Tampa Bay came within seconds of securing their sixth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season, but the Lions countered with a rally of their own and won for the first time in their last 27 road games. Dave Rayner's third field goal, a 34-yarder five minutes into overtime, completed a nine-play 63-yard drive on the first possession of sudden death.
The Buccaneers took a 20-17 lead just past the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter with Connor Barth's 26-yard field goal at the end of an impressive 57-yard drive. The Buccaneers trailed 17-14 entering the fourth quarter and scored on their only two possessions of the period, running a total of 26 plays for 124 yards on those drives and converting four third downs. However, after earning a first down at the Lions' 15 at the two-minute warning the Buccaneers chose to run three times to force the Lions to use all their timeouts. The three runs failed to gain a first down and the Bucs left Detroit with 1:39 to try to tie the game or take the lead.
Morris said he chose to try to win the game on defense, but the strategy was hurt by a strong kickoff return by Stefan Logan and the defense didn't get the stop Morris expected it to.
"We lost a game we could have won," said Morris. "We had it in our grasp and let it slip away in the fourth quarter, which isn't like us, at least the way we've played this year. We didn't play well enough on defense on that last drive."
With third-string QB Drew Stanton at the helm, the Lions drove 58 yards on 10 plays to set up Rayner's 28-yarder at the end of regulation. Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who finished the game with 10 receptions for 152 yards, got his team into field goal position with one of his many acrobatic catches of the day, this one a falling 23-yarder at the Bucs' 22. The Bucs, who have lost seven starters to injuries in the past three weeks, probably missed the presence of rising-star cornerback Aqib Talib and several other defenders but Morris refused to use that as an excuse for his defense's performance.
"We gave up 150 yards to Calvin Johnson and we can't do that," said Morris. "We have to find a way to stop him."
The loss wasted one of the Buccaneers' better offensive outings of the year, as they gained 403 yards, avoided turning the ball over even once and showed outstanding balance between the run and the pass. QB Josh Freeman completed 21 of 32 passes for 251 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, leading to a passer rating of 99.9. His favorite target, as has often been the case in 2010, was rookie wide receiver Mike Williams, who caught six passes for 96 yards and a score.
Meanwhile, rookie RB LeGarrette Blount needed just 15 carries to pound for 110 yards and a score as the Bucs gained 176 yards on the ground and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. Several of Blount's carries were the type that used to bring out the A-Train whistles, as he broke tackles and powered over defenders in the open field. That was certainly the case on his 39-yard touchdown run that gave the Buccaneers a 14-10 lead at halftime.
Freeman's 251 passing yards didn't come easy, as the Lions' excellent defensive line kept the pressure on most of the afternoon. The second-year quarterback who nearly got his eighth comeback victory in less than two years of starting escaped near sacks on numerous occasions and showed creativity in his playmaking, such as corralling a bad snap with one hand and somehow getting off a quick dart to Cadillac Williams to convert a key third down in the first half.
Tampa Bay's rookies continued to storm up the charts. Blount's 110 rushing yards moved him past New Orleans' Chris Ivory and into the lead among all NFL newcomers with a total of 777 on the season. Blount also tied Indianapolis' Javarris James with his sixth rushing touchdown of the season. Williams, already the NFL rookie leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns merely padded his leads in those categories. The Bucs have spent the entire season relying on huge contributions from rookies, and on Sunday became the first team since the 2004 Tennessee Titans to give starts to 10 different rookies. Cornerback Myron Lewis was the latest newcomer to take a game-opening snap, and he played extensively in the nickel package with Talib out.
It wasn't enough to overcome the Lions, however, as Detroit racked up 433 yards of offense, 121 of it on their last two drives. Stanton completed 23 of 37 passes for 252 yards, one TD and a 91.3 passer rating. Stanton looked to "Megatron" Johnson repeatedly but also threw a 10-yard scoring pass to WR Nate Burleson in the first quarter and made good use of TEs Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler (a combined five catches for 43 yards). RB Maurice Morris ran for 109 yards and a score on 15 carries and the Lions' rushing attack powered for 181 yards on 28 totes, averaging 6.5 yards per try.
The Lions struck first late in the first quarter with a 68-yard touchdown drive. Calvin Johnson caught passes of 20 and 16 yards to get the Lions to the 10, and Stanton then found Burleson in the right flat for a touchdown. The Buccaneers had taken their first drive into Detroit territory but Freeman overthrew Winslow down the middle on a third down from the 43 and the Bucs had to punt.
However, Freeman got on track on the Bucs' third drive and made a string of precise passes to build an eight-play, 60-yard touchdown drive to tie the game early in the second quarter. One of those pinpoint throws was a rollout 13-yard strike to WR Arrelious Benn on fourth-and-two from the Detroit 37. On the next play, the Bucs ran three receivers vertically into the end zone and Freeman picked the right one, firing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams.
Freeman stayed sharp on the next drive, not to mention creative, particularly on the aforementioned stumbling run and the cross-field throw to FB Earnest Graham. Freeman and Benn also started the drive with a smart play, as the receiver saw a stop-and-go wasn't going to work and broke the route off so a scrambling Freeman could hit him on the sideline for a gain of 11. It was Blount that finished the drive off, however, breaking into the open after burying S John Wendling and CB Nathan Vasher in the middle of the field.
The Lions were able to cut into the lead before halftime with a 41-yard Dave Rayner field goal, thanks largely to Calvin Johnson's 30-yard catch-and-run. Johnson split the middle of the defense on a slant and nearly went the distance but CB E.J. Biggers made a touchdown-saving tackle in the open field at the Bucs' 30. The Bucs did hold there, thanks to near sacks on blitzes by Ronde Barber and Hayes, forcing the field goal try with 55 seconds left. Freeman led the Bucs over midfield in the last minute of the half but ran out of time before getting into field goal range.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
Detroit got the ball to start the second half and immediately launched a scoring threat, helped by a short bouncing kickoff that provided a drive start of the Lions' 42. Burleson got around the left edge on an end-around and ran 25 yards to the Bucs' 21 and Stanton converted a third down at the Bucs' 10 with a pass over the middle to Scheffler. Two plays later, Morris split the middle of the defense with a simple run over left guard and the Lions took the lead.
Freeman moved the Bucs into Detroit territory on the ensuing drive with sharp passes to Mike Williams and TE John Gilmore. However, a holding call on G Ted Larsen and a six-yard sack made it third-and-21 and the Bucs had to punt from the Lions' 49. WR Maurice Stovall just missed downing the ball inside the five, but the Lions got a touchback.
The Lions converted a third-and-10 at the beginning of the drive by throwing yet another quick-hitter to Calvin Johnson. However, the Bucs' defense held at midfield and forced a punt, giving the ball back to the offense at the Tampa Bay 20.
A three-yard catch by Graham and a two-yard run by Blount brought on the fourth quarter. To start the fourth quarter, Freeman lobbed a sideline pass towards Mike Williams under an intense blitz and Williams drew an interference call on CB Nathan Vasher. That made it first-and-10 at the 42, but a pass to Ryan Purvis for no gain and an illegal-substitution penalty made it second-and-15 back at the 37. Freeman accelerated rapidly on a scramble to the left and came up just short of the first down, then finished the job with his three-yard sneak to the Detroit 46. Unfortunately, Freeman was sacked for a 14-yard loss on the next play when he tried to spin away and spun right into the clutches of DE Lawrence Jackson. Mike Williams got the Bucs immediately out of that hole by taking a receiver screen to the left sideline and gaining 26 yards. A false start and a pass breakup by LB Bobby Carpenter made it second-and-15 at the 39.
Blount came to the rescue again with an unbelievable 27-yard run, somehow staying on his feet as tacklers fell off him. Now at the Lions' 12, the Bucs tried to a fade to Mike Williams but it was well-defended. A 10-yard catch-and-run by Benn with a facemask penalty on the end moved it all the way to the one-yard line. An empty-backfield sneak by Freeman didn't work and Graham lost a yard. Winslow made an incredible catch on a third-down pass but the Bucs lost the points when the tight end was flagged for pass interference. Now at the 12, Freeman tried a fade to Williams but it was broken up and they had to settle for Barth's 30-yarder and a tie game with 8:51 to play.
A penalty on the ensuing kickoff forced Detroit to start at their own 10 but Morris ripped off a 10-yard run on the first play to get to the 20, then reversed field on his next run to gain 15 more. A run-blitzing Hayes got Jahvid Best for a loss of three on first down from the 35 and Stanton's second-down pass was too high for Burleson. A hustling Stylez G. White caught Morris from behind on third-and-13 when it looked like he might turn a short pass into a first down. A 20-yard return on the ensuing punt by Micheal Spurlock allowed Tampa Bay to start again at their own 35 with 5:48 to play.
Freeman took a crack at a deep pass to Benn on first down but it was a bit too long. On third-and-10, Freeman moved the chains, buying time behind Cadillac Williams' block and finding Spurlock for a gain of 19. A false start moved the ball back five yards but Winslow fought for extra yardage on a short pass and got nine. He and Mike Williams were on the same page on a second-down scramble a Williams broke his route upfield and Freeman lobbed it to him for a gain of 13. Now at the Lions' 29, the Bucs gave it to Blount who powered up the middle for a gain of six. Another power run up the middle came up a yard short but ran the clock down to the two-minute warning.
The Bucs didn't have to worry about the third-down conversion because DT Corey Williams jumped offside. The Bucs ran Cadillac Williams on first down to force the Lions to use their first timeout with 1:55 to play; Williams got one yard. The process repeated on second down, with Williams gaining two and the play burning five seconds and another timeout. On third down the Buccaneers spread the field and then tried Freeman on a delayed sneak. He was caught three yards short but the Lions used their last timeout at the 1:44 mark before Barth nailed a 26-yarder to give the Bucs a 20-17 lead with 1:39 left.
Stefan Logan got the ensuing kickoff out to the Lions' 32. Good pressure on first down led to a Stanton incompletion but the quarterback found Bryant Johnson over the middle at the Bucs' 49 on second down. An open-field tackle by Biggers kept Calvin Johnson inbounds on the next play, but Johnson followed with a stunning sideline catch at the Bucs' 22. Lewis broke up a short pass to Bryant Johnson and a second down fade to the same receiver was overthrown. Scheffler kept the drive alive with a leaping catch at the Bucs 10 and Stanton spiked it with eight seconds left. One more crack at the end zone failed but Rayner tied the game with a 28-yard field goal as time ran out.
The Lions won the coin toss to start overtime and needed just a few plays to get into field goal territory. First Morris found a seam for a 26-yard gain to midfield, then Best followed with a 14-yard burst to the Bucs' 39. The Lions' next two plays gained just two yards but Calvin Johnson made yet another acrobatic catch on the sideline for a first down at the Bucs' 25. Three more runs positioned the ball at the Bucs' 16 and Rayner came on to hit a game-winning 34-yard field goal.
Game Notes: Detroit now leads the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 28-25. The Bucs have won three of five matchups since realignment in 2002 put the two teams in different divisions. The Bucs have played the Lions 53 times, tying the Chicago Bears for their most common opponent. In 26 meetings in Tampa Bay, the two teams are even at 13 wins apiece. … WR Preston Parker saw playing time on defense in the first quarter. Parker took the field in a dime package on third down and blitzed the quarterback out of the slot. … Former USF linebacker Tyrone McKenzie made his NFL debut on Sunday. Activated from the practice squad earlier in the week, McKenzie played on special teams and saw one snap on defense when LB Geno Hayes came off to fix an equipment issue. … WR Mike Williams' 24-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was his eighth score of the year. That broke Michael Clayton's Buccaneer rookie record for receiving touchdowns, set in 2004, and tied Lars Tate's rookie mark for overall touchdowns, set in 1988. … QB Josh Freeman has thrown a touchdown pass in 11 straight games, the longest streak by a Buccaneer since Brian Griese threw one in 12 straight games covering 2004 and the first game of 2005.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: S Larry Asante, CB D.J. Johnson, FB Erik Lorig, G Brandon Carter, T Will Barker, DE George Johnson, WR Dezmon Briscoe and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. None were out due to injury.
The Lions deactivated these eight players: QB Matthew Stafford, RB Aaron Brown, LB Vinny Ciurciu, LB Landon Johnson, T Tony Ugoh, G Donald Thomas, DE Willie Young and designated third quarterback Zac Robinson. Stafford, Ciurciu and Johnson were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, T James Lee left in the first quarter with an ankle injury and did not return.
For the Lions, S Louis Delmas left the game in the second quarter after being shaken up and did not return.