For a team living on the very edge of a playoff race, there is no joy in moral victories.
As such, Tampa Bay's 35-26 loss to the still-undefeated Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday was just as painful as the three that preceded it. The Buccaneers were within two points with four minutes to play but it was Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' opportunistic defense that made the last two big plays to put it away.
With the loss, the Buccaneers fell to 4-6, meaning they may need to run the table to make the playoffs this year. The Packers seem certain to do so after starting their post-Super Bowl season with 10 straight victories.
However, while it may be of little consolation to the players themselves, the Buccaneers played perhaps their most inspired game of the season in the near-upset of the defending champs. Few of the things that had been ailing the team in recent weeks – missed tackles, lack of swarming to the football, dropped passes, inconsistent offense – were in evidence, and this time there will be nobody calling their effort into question.
Penalties did once again cause a problem, though not until a key fourth-quarter drive by the Packers. After Mike Williams' nine-yard touchdown catch had closed Green Bay's lead to two points, the home team went 85 yards on eight plays, helped immensely by three flags thrown in the secondary. A defensive holding call on CB Myron Lewis early in the march prevented a three-and-out, and a pass interference flag on CB E.J. Biggers put the ball at the Bucs' two-yard line before John Kuhn's touchdown run.
The Bucs still had 7:30 to work with after that score, and were rescued after a three-and-out and a long punt return by Randall Cobb when Elbert Mack intercepted QB Aaron Rodgers near midfield. The Bucs drove 50 yards to set up Dezmon Briscoe's two-yard touchdown after that pick, making it 28-26, but Green Bay sealed the victory with a 40-yard touchdown catch by Jordy Nelson and a deflected-pass interception by CB Tramon Williams.
The Bucs played the game aggressively, trying two onside kicks (neither successful) and throwing frequently downfield. In the end, they racked up 455 total yards to Green Bay's 378 and averaged a season-best 7.6 yards per play to the Packers' 6.4.
QB Josh Freeman was as locked-in as he's been all season and he was helped immensely by RB LeGarrette Blount's power running. Freeman threw for a career-high 342 yards on 28-of-38 passing, hitting on touchdown passes to Briscoe and Mike Williams. Blount helped out with 107 yards on 18 carries, including a 54-yard touchdown run that ranks among the best in team history as he repeatedly broke through apparent tackles.
Freeman's favorite target on the day was TE Kellen Winslow, who caught nine passes for 132 yards, though starting receivers Williams and Arrelious Benn added seven-for-83 and five-for-75, respectively. That marked the first time since December 2, 2007 that the Bucs had a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in the same game. Luke McCown threw for 313 yards, Earnest Graham ran for 106 and Joey Galloway caught seven passes for 159 yards on that day as the Buccaneers won in New Orleans and essentially clinched the NFC South title.
Another division crown will be a tall order for the Buccaneers at this point, as the idle New Orleans Saints are at 7-3, three games ahead of Tampa Bay with six weeks to go. However, the Bucs do have three division games to play, including two against last-place Carolina. The Bucs will look to rebound during the stretch run after facing a division-leading team for three consecutive weeks.
The Bucs answered a week's worth of scrutiny in impressive fashion after last Sunday's 37-9 loss to the Texans. That game featured several long plays that would likely have been contained with better tackling; as a result, the team put in extra padded practice work this past week and urged its players to get back to swarming to the football. That was very much in evidence at Lambeau Field as the Bucs mostly bottled up Green Bay's rushing attack (91 yards) and didn't allow a Packer back to break off a double-digit run until late in the fourth quarter.
Of course, it has been virtually impossible to contain Rodgers this season. The Packers' surgical quarterback completed 23 of 34 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, resulting in a passer rating of 112.3 that was actually well below his season-long mark of 130.7 coming into the afternoon. Nelson was Rodgers' favorite target, catching six passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bucs did sack Rodgers twice, one each by rookie DE Adrian Clayborn and second-year DT Brian Price. Clayborn was also credited with a tackle for loss and two quarterback pressures, and LB Quincy Black had eight stops, two of them for losses. CB Aqib Talib pitched in with three deflected passes.
The Bucs could hardly afford too many bad bounces, but they caught a tough break right off the bat. After an inspired stop by the defense on Green Bay's opening possession, LB Jacob Cutrera rushed in on P Tim Masthay with an apparent chance to block the punt. Instead, Masthay pulled down his kick just in time and evaded Cutrera, then ran around right end for a first down. Masthay fumbled twice during his jaunt, but the first one bounced back to him and the second one went out of bounds.
That kept that opening Packer drive alive, and it eventually covered 88 yards on 15 plays. Rodgers converted three third downs along the way, the last one on his first scramble of the game, down to the Bucs' six. Rodgers ran again on the next play but was denied the end zone by a hard hit from CB Ronde Barber. On the next play, the Packers brought in Raji to play fullback in a jumbo package, in front of true FB John Kuhn, and Rodgers gave it to the 337-pound defensive tackle for a one-yard score.
The Packers' took their second drive for a touchdown, too, having to cover only half the field this time after a three-and-out by the Bucs' offense and a 14-yard punt return by the dangerous Randall Cobb. A 26-yard catch by Nelson on an impressive diving play on the sideline was the big-gainer, and Rodgers finished it with a five-yard scoring pass to TE Tim Crabtree, who released off the right edge of the line and wasn't covered as he jogged into the end zone.
The Bucs responded impressively, however, covering 82 yards on just two plays on the ensuing possession. Benn came back to haul in a 28-yard pass from Freeman down the left sideline, and Blount did the rest on the next play. Taking a handoff from the Tampa Bay 46, he broke one tackle near the line of scrimmage, powered his way through two more Packers a few yards later and then broke into the open for the score. Replays showed Blount pulling away from or bouncing off of six different defenders during the run.
Energized by that play, the Bucs' defense got a stop on the next series, with Clayborn's sack providing the big play. Freeman then led the Bucs on a long, methodical march, made possible by an impressive scrambling completion to Winslow on third down deep in Tampa Bay territory. Blount ran three times for 26 yards on the drive, but it stalled inside the 10 and the Bucs settled for Barth's 23-yard field goal.
Morris' aggressive onside try followed. P Michael Koenen tried to bounce it just past the requisite 10-yard mark but it slowed before it got to the 40 and he reached back to try to pull it in. A Green Bay defender dived in at almost the same time and was originally ruled to have touched it before Koenen, meaning the Bucs' eventual recovery would have stood. However, Green Bay challenged the play and it was overturned after it was determined that Koenen did indeed touch it first.
Given a short field by that gamble, Rodgers quickly drove the Packers for their third touchdown. A 26-yard catch by TE Jermichael Finley did most of the damage and Rodgers finished it with a five-yard scoring pass to Nelson. The Bucs' offense used the remaining two minutes in the half to drive into Green Bay territory but Tramon Williams ended that threat with a diving interception at the Green Bay 28, the first of two for him on the day.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
The Bucs had to kick off to start the second half but a block in the back by the Packers' return team forced them to start at their own six. Starks got three yards on a first-down run but Talib tipped away a deep pass to Jennings at the last second after a play-action pass. The Bucs' defense caught another bad break on third down when E.J. Biggers deflected Rodgers' next pass but it was still hauled in by Driver for a gain of 35. Rodgers faced another third down moments later after a nice pursuit tackle of Starks by LB Quincy Black and an incompletion, and this time Price shot in for an eight-yard sack to end the drive.
Parker's 16-yard return of Masthay's punt helped the Bucs start their next drive at their own 29, though he was fortunate that his fumble went out of bounds. Mike Williams made a fine spinning catch for nine yards to start the drive and Blount pounded for four more and a first down. A Freeman scramble two plays later made it third-and-six at the Bucs' 46 and the Bucs' QB looked to Winslow once again for the conversion, hitting him on a pivot for seven yards. A receiver screen to Williams was blocked perfectly, allowing him to get 23 yards to the Green Bay 23, and Blount pulled out another amazing run for 12 more. After another receiver screen to Williams got four and Blount's next run got three, the Bucs faced a third-and-three at the Green Bay four. An apparent touchdown pass to Winslow was called back by offensive pass interference, Freeman threw incomplete and the Bucs settled for Barth's second field goal of the day, a 32-yarder. That brought the Bucs within one score, at 21-13 with five minutes left in the third quarter.
After a touchback, the Bucs' secondary provided good coverage on consecutive incompletions by Rogers. On third-and-10, however, Rodgers stood in as the pocket collapsed on him and had just enough time to get off a 19-yarder to Driver. A tackle by Jones on Starks for a loss of three two plays later made it third-and-eight at the Green Bay 41 and Talib ended the drive with a diving pass deflection.
Masthay's punt rolled down to the Bucs' nine, but Freeman hit Williams on an in-and-out route for 18 yards on a first-down play-action call. Two plays later, the Bucs brought in a jumbo set but Freeman faked another handoff and found Winslow deep down the left side for 37 yards. The third quarter ended with the Bucs facing a second-and-eight at the Green Bay 30, and the final period began with a 15-yard catch by Winslow. From the 16, the Bucs ran a bubble screen for Benn and he shot forward six yards to the nine. Blount slipped on his second-down carry for no gain, but Freeman hit Williams on a slant on third down and he got the full nine yards to the end zone. The Bucs tried to tie it with a two-point conversion but Winslow couldn't pull in Freeman's pass as he fell to the ground in the end zone.
Parker stopped Cobb's kickoff return cold at the Green Bay 15, and Bowers chased down Starks on a first-down carry for just three yards. A screen to Starks was also well-defended, making it third-and-four, but an incompletion was rendered moot by a defensive holding call on CB Myron Lewis. Starks then got 12 yards on a swing pass and Rodgers found Driver for 13 yards to the Bucs' 49. An illegal-contact penalty on Biggers gave Green Bay another set of downs at the 44, and one run and one catch by Starks took it down to the Bucs' 27. Starks then broke off his best run of the game, getting 20 yards to the Bucs' seven. A false start moved it back to the 12 but a pass-interference call on Biggers took it back to the two. An underneath handoff to Kuhn finished the drive in the end zone, making it 28-19 with 7:42 to play.
A good kickoff return by Sammie Stroughter got the ball out to the 30, but the Bucs went three-and-out. Blount made a nice gain on a short pass but a third-and-three pass in Williams' direction was incomplete. The Bucs elected to punt and Cobb got around the right end for a long return to give Green Bay a first down at the Bucs' 45.
However, Mack got the ball right back for the Bucs' offense with his first interception of the season. Mack cut inside WR James Jones on a short out and gave Rodgers just his fourth pick of the entire season. Mack was able to scramble to the midfield stripe after his takeaway, and a quick pass to Briscoe got five yards. After an incompletion, Freeman found Winslow cutting to the left for a gain of six. On the next play, Freeman went deep to Benn, who made a dazzling catch despite drawing an illegal-contact flag. Benn landed on his back at the two and on the next play Freeman faked a handoff and threw to a wide-open Briscoe in the left end of the end zone. The extra point made it 28-26 in Green Bay's favor with 4:25 to play.
The Bucs tried an onside kick but did not recover. The Packers started at their own 46 and gave it to Starks twice for six total yards. An injury to Starks stopped the clock with 3:25 to play and the Packers facing third-and-four at the Bucs' 40. Instead of going for a short play to convert the third down, Rodgers threw over the top to Nelson and he hauled it on a dead run down the left sideline for a 40-yard score, effectively putting the game away.
Stroughter contributed another strong return to the Bucs' 32, but Freeman's first pass tipped off Winslow's hands and was intercepted by Tramon Williams. Williams took the ball down to the Bucs' 18 on his return and Grant swept right for three yards on first down. Rodgers rolled out on his next two plays but had to settle for short dumpoff passes that went nowhere. Mason Crosby then bounced his 29-yard field goal try off the right upright.
The Bucs took over at their own 20 and Freeman hit Winslow down the left seam for 18 yards, rushing up to the line to spike the ball on the next snap. Freeman was sacked by CB Charles Woodson on the next play, and his third-down throw in Winslow's direction was incomplete. With 40 seconds to play, the Bucs went for it on fourth-and-13 and an underneath throw to Winslow fell short of the sticks.
Game Notes: Green Bay now leads the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 30-21-1, with a mark of 18-7 in games played at home (some were played in Milwaukee). The Packers' victory snapped the Bucs' three-game winning streak in the series, which had included a 17-16 victory in Tampa Bay's last trip to Lambeau Field, in 2006. … LB Geno Hayes returned to the starting lineup after two games as a reserve and contributed two tackles. Sunday's outing was the 50th game played of Hayes' career. … CB Ronde Barber played in his 218th consecutive game on Sunday against the Packers. That streak ties for the fourth-longest by a defensive player in the NFL since 1970, matching a 218-game streak by Clyde Simmons. … RB LeGarrette Blount's incredible 54-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the longest of his career. It was also the longest run by the Buccaneers since a 61-yarder by Earnest Graham against the Bengals on October 10, 2010. It was the longest scoring run for Tampa Bay since a 68-yard TD jaunt by Earnest Graham against Atlanta on September 14, 2008. … TE Kellen Winslow's nine catches for 132 yards gave him the seventh 100-yard game of his career, and his first since November 15, 2009 against Miami. Winslow's yardage total stands as his career high.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: CB Anthony Gaitor, S Tanard Jackson, LB Derek Watson, T Demar Dotson, G Derek Hardman, WR Micheal Spurlock and DT Frank Okam. Jackson, Watson and Okam were out due to injury.
The Packers declared these seven inactives: CB Davon House, LB Robert Francois, LB Jamari Lattimore, LB Frank Zombo, G/T Ray Dominguez, T Chad Clifton and TE D.J. Williams. Zombo and Clifton were out due to injury.
Injuries: Neither team reported an injury from the sideline during the game, though RB James Starks was helped off the field late in the fourth quarter with an apparent leg injury.