QB Tim Rattay threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns in an impressive relief performance
Just when it seemed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were destined to be nothing more than bit players in the Chicago Bears' season of destiny, the underdog visitors almost made history of their own.
At the very least, the Buccaneers made a few throats get tight in the Soldier Field crowd of 62,260 before finally falling to the 12-2 Bears in overtime, 34-31.
Trailing 24-3 late in the fourth quarter to the NFC's best team, the Bucs rallied stunningly to a 31-31 tie in regulation before losing the game in overtime on Robbie Gould's 25-yard field goal. The loss dropped Tampa Bay to 3-11 but it also put on display what the Bucs have been claiming they still possess during this lost season: Heart, will and desire.
Tampa Bay was considered a two-touchdown underdog entering the game and, indeed, seemed outclassed for much of three quarters. Chicago's often stifling defense allowed only 64 yards by halftime and built a 21-3 lead that they increased to three touchdowns with a 38-yard field goal with five minutes left in the third quarter.
That's when the Buccaneers awoke from hibernation like, well, a sleeping bear, rallying twice against a Bears defense that had only allowed as many as 31 points all season. Reserve QB Tim Rattay led the rally with 268 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-35 passing.
After Gould's 38-yard field goal made it 24-3 with five minutes left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay put together its first comeback, scoring two touchdowns in a 62-second span that crossed from the third quarter into the fourth. First, FB Mike Alstott completed a 57-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown run with 32 seconds left in the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, S Blue Adams forced a fumble by dangerous return man Devin Hester and Wesly Mallard recovered for the Buccaneers, setting up Alex Smith's nine-yard touchdown catch.
The Bears followed with a 77-yard touchdown drive to make it 31-17, then intercepted Rattay's next pass. The Bucs forced a punt but had to take possession at their own five with 7:25 to play. From there, Rattay launched a stunning, 95-yard drive, the fifth-longest touchdown march in Buccaneer history. After struggling throughout the game to get the ball to speedy receiver Joey Galloway, Rattay hit him twice in a row, once for a 30-yard gain and then next on a crossing route that Galloway caught near midfield and took the rest of the way for a 64-yard touchdown.
The Bucs' defense then got the ball back for the offense at midfield and, two plays later, Rattay hit WR Ike Hilliard on a quick slant that turned into a 44-yard touchdown when Hilliard knifed through three defenders and stiff-armed CB Ricky Manning, Jr. at the five to reach the end zone. With the game now tied at 31 each, the Bucs got the ball back one more time thanks to DE Dewayne White's third-down sack moments later but couldn't mount a final scoring drive, sending the game into overtime.
The Bucs won the toss in overtime and started moving up the field again, but almost lost it early in the sudden death period thanks to that same fight that had helped them tie the game. Struggling for extra yardage along the sideline, TE Alex Smith had the ball stripped out of his grasp by LB Lance Briggs, with Chicago recovering at the Bucs' 22. Gould tried a 37-yard field goal three snaps later but hooked it just to the left, keeping the Bucs alive. Unfortunately, the offense stalled and, following a punt, WR Rashied Davis made an acrobatic 28-yard catch on third-and-eight to set up Gould's game-winner.
It was a heartbreaking loss for the Buccaneers, who came close to setting a new record for largest game-winning rally. The team record in that category is 17 points. The late rally allowed the Bucs' offense to gain 357 yards, 300 of it through the air. However, Chicago gained 446 yards and showed more balance, throwing for 312 and running for 134.
Rattay, who relieved ineffective rookie starter Bruce Gradkowski midway through the second period, enjoyed good protection as he wasn't sacked once in 35 drop-backs. The Bucs' defense, meanwhile, racked up four sacks of embattled QB Rex Grossman but couldn't stop him from throwing for a career-high 339 yards and two touchdowns against no interceptions. Grossman's favorite target was, surprisingly, TE Desmond Clark, who caught seven passes for 125 yards and two first-half touchdowns.
With the win, the Bears locked up homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They played Sunday's game without four starters: LT John Tait, RDT Tank Johnson, RCB Nathan Vasher and SS Todd Johnson. Chris Harris, playing in Johnson's place, had the game's only interception in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs' offense – and special teams – got off to a solid start. The Bucs rolled the dice with a game-opening kickoff to the frightening Hester but were able to angle him out of bounds at the 31. When Juran Bolden knocked WR Bernard Berrian off his feet on a third-and-eight slant, the Bears came up a yard short and had to punt. Tampa Bay's offense didn't fare much better with its opening parry, however, going three-and-out and punting it right back. The Bucs tried to take advantage of the Bears' aggressive eight-men-in-the-box front with a first-down read route by Galloway, but Gradkowski's game-opening pass came out of his hand end-over-end.
The Bears did mount a successful drive with their second possession, patiently working into scoring position with a collection of runs and short passes. Thomas Jones carried four times for 18 yards and caught a nine-yard pass, helping Chicago reach the Bucs' 24. On third-and-three, the Bears finally broke out the long play, as Grossman hit Clark on a slow-developing crossing route towards the left edge of the touchdown. Grossman's pass was a perfect lob over S Jermaine Phillips' head and Clark scored easily to make it 7-0 Chicago at the midway point of the first quarter.
The Bucs tried a few new wrinkles to get the offense going on their next possession, including using Smith as a lead blocker, sending Gradkowski on a bootleg run and even using a bit of no-huddle. The end result, though, was another three-and-out, though P Josh Bidwell salvaged some gain out of it with a 48-yard net punt. Unfortunately, after a nice defensive stop by the Bucs, Chicago P Brad Maynard answered with a booming, 56-yard punt that Mark Jones caught just as he stepped out of bounds at the Tampa Bay 20.
Both punters had strong days, and Chicago's Brad Maynard had the game's biggest kick when he dropped a punt down at the Buccaneer two-yard line late in overtime. Josh Bidwell helped the Bucs hold their own in the field-position battle with a 44.5-yard gross and 38.8-yard net on a taxing 11 punts, hitting not a single touchback. The Bucs' coverage units did an outstanding job of containing Devin Hester, allowing Hester just 139 yards on 11 combined punt and kickoff returns and forcing him to fumble twice.
The Bucs' defense appeared to create the game's first turnover minutes later, forcing Clark to fumble at the end of a 15-yard catch. However, the play was challenged and overturned as Clark had clearly landed on the ground before LB Shelton Quarles ripped the ball free. The drive still ended moments later thanks to a near interception by CB Ronde Barber and a sack by DE Greg Spires on third-and-two from midfield.
Starting at their own 17 after a fair catch, the Bucs got their initial first down of the game on a quick slant to rookie WR Maurice Stovall, who used his big frame to bang through two defenders for a gain of 17. Fellow young receiver Paris Warren caught a nine-yard slant to convert the next third down, but the drive stalled when S Danieal Manning knocked away an on-target deep ball to Galloway. Forced to throw on third-and-10, Gradkowski had the ball swatted out of his hand by blitzing Manning, Jr. The Bucs recovered and Bidwell punted the ball out of bounds at the Chicago five.
The Bucs just missed another takeaway on first down. Barber was in position to pick off a deep ball to Berrian, but Phillips, trying to make a play too, arrived just in time to knock Barber off the ball. Still, the Bucs penned Chicago against its goal line and the ensuing punt, 12-yard return by Jones and penalty on the Bears put the ball at the Chicago 26. The Bucs mounted a scoring drive from there, so to speak, losing a yard on one play but capitalizing with Matt Bryant's 45-yard field goal.
Still concerned about Hester, the Bucs followed that score with a pooch kickoff that didn't provide particularly good results. LB Darrell McClover caught the short popup and got it back to the Bears' 44. From there, it was a relatively simple, eight-play, 56-yard drive to another touchdown for Chicago. Clark caught a 15-yard pass to put the ball at the Bucs' five and Jones ran it in from there on first down, dashing to the right front corner of the end zone.
Gradkowski was lifted at this point, but another three-and-out gave Chicago time to drive again. The Bucs held thanks in part to Ellis Wyms' third-down sack, but the offense couldn't move the sticks and had to give it back with plenty of time for the Bears to pad their lead. Clark came up big again with a 25-yard catch down the middle of the field then took it into the end zone again with a 12-yard touchdown catch.
The Buccaneers go on the road again next weekend to face the Cleveland Browns on December 24.
Game Notes: CB Ronde Barber's four tackles (unofficial press box stats) gave him 101 for the season. He has now topped 100 tackles in four consecutive seasons, the only cornerback in franchise history to do so. Barber also broke up two passes. … WR Joey Galloway's first reception of the game was the 600th of his career, making him the 15th active player to reach that mark. He finished the game with three receptions, giving him 602 on his career. … DT Ellis Wyms' sack just before halftime was his fifth of the season, making him the team leader in that category. DE Dewayne White later tied him the fourth quarter with his fifth sack. … TE Desmond Clark caught seven passes for a career-high 125 yards for the Bears. That made him the first Chicago tight end to post a 100-yard receiving game since the 1985 season. … FB Mike Alstott's 14-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was the 71st score of his career, and the 58th one he has run in. He is the Bucs' career leader in both categories by wide margins. … Alstott's touchdown also snapped a 13-quarter streak in which the Buccaneers had not scored a touchdown. The team's most recent TD before that was on a game-opening drive at Dallas on Thanksgiving, also ending in an Alstott run. … WR Ike Hilliard's 44-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was his longest play in two seasons as a Buccaneer. It was also his longest reception overall since 2000 and his 30th career touchdown. … WR Joey Galloway's 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was his 70th career touchdown. … P Josh Bidwell punted 11 times in the game, tying the team record for most punts in a single game. The mark had been set five times previously, most recently by Mark Royals at Green Bay on December 24, 2000.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Alan Zemaitis, S Donte Nicholson, C Nick Mihlhauser, T Donald Penn, TE Doug Jolley, DE Charles Bennett, DT Jon Bradley and designated third quarterback Luke McCown.
The Bears named the following eight players inactive: WR Justin Gage, CB Nathan Vasher, S Todd Johnson, FB J.D. Runnels, LB Leon Joe, T John Tait, DT Tank Johnson and designated third quarterback Kyle Orton. Tait, Vasher and Todd Johnson were out due to injuries.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Chris Hovan had to be helped off the field in the first quarter but it was a simple matter of dirt in the eye. Hovan returned on the next defensive series. CB Phillip Buchanon left the game in the third quarter after getting hit in the head. He did return.
The Bears did not report any injuries during the game.