QB Luke McCown (center) and the Bucs came to town looking for a division title but will have to wait at least another day
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to Houston with a chance to extend their winning streak to five games and lock up the NFC South, but left with their first loss since October and without the division title…for now.
Carolina's loss at Jacksonville on Sunday did move Tampa Bay a bit closer to the division crown. A loss by New Orleans at Atlanta on Monday night would now give the division to the Bucs, though they obviously preferred to take care of matters on their own.
Houston prevented that by winning the battle of reserve quarterbacks. Sage Rosenfels, filling in for the injured Matt Schaub, was extremely sharp in his second start of the season, completing 75% of his passes (27 of 36) for 209 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Rosenfels was particularly sharp on third downs, as he helped Houston convert on 10 of 17 third down tries.
That built on an ongoing problem for the Buccaneers; despite ranking fifth in the league in defense when the day began, the Bucs have allowed a third-down conversion rate of 42.8, including 47.5 in the last four games. The Bucs' offense, in contrast, was just three of 13 on third downs on Sunday.
Rosenfels' favorite target, not surprisingly, was standout WR Andre Johnson, who enjoyed a size advantage over all of the Buccaneers' cornerbacks and used it to catch nine passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Luke McCown made his second straight start for Tampa Bay in place of QB Jeff Garcia, who is recovering from a deep lower back bruise suffered against Washington on November 25. McCown, who completed his first 15 passes in a victorious starting debut at New Orleans last week, once again came out hot with eight straight completions. Though he cooled somewhat after the first quarter, McCown finished his second start with 25 completions in 38 attempts for 266 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked four times. As good as he had looked on several deep passes in New Orleans, McCown missed on several golden opportunities down the field in the third quarter, including a potential touchdown pass to Joey Galloway that was just out of the receiver's reach.
The game turned on a pair of fumbles in the span of four plays in the third quarter. With the Texans leading 21-14 and driving for another score, DE Greg White forced a fumble by Rosenfels that DT Jovan Haye recovered for Tampa Bay and returned to the Bucs' 34. However, three plays later McCown fumbled a snap and C.C. Brown recovered for the Texans, returning it to the 17. Four plays later, Rosenfels threw his third touchdown pass, a four-yarder to TE Owen Daniels, and the game was out of reach.
Houston also turned in the game's most important special teams play, as WR Andre` Davis returned the opening kickoff of the second half 97 yards for a touchdown. It was the first kick-return score allowed by Tampa Bay since Washington's Ladell Betts managed the feat at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 13, 2005.
For the first time in seven such instances this season, the Buccaneers lost a game in which RB Earnest Graham scored a touchdown. Still, Graham continued his roll through the second half of the season, carrying 15 times for 61 yards and two scores. His touchdown in the second quarter gave him five straight games with a score, tying the longest such streaks in team history. Gary Anderson was the first Buc to score TDs in five straight games in 1990, a feat then matched by Reggie Cobb in 1992 and Errict Rhett in 1995. Graham added his second touchdown early in the third quarter on an 11-yard toss-sweep around right end.
Speaking of second-half rolls, DE Greg White turned in yet another eye-opening performance in his improbable NFL comeback. White, who first entered the league as a seventh-round draft pick by the Texans in 2002, had brief stints with seven NFL teams in the ensuing years but never locked down a roster spot. He had played two seasons in the Arena League before the Bucs convinced him to give it one more try this past summer.
The Bucs found a spot for White and he has rewarded the Bucs with a team-high 8.5 sacks, including three on Sunday against his original team. White's first forced fumble led to Graham's first touchdown. Amazingly, White has forced two fumbles in three of the Bucs' last four games and, with six on the season, he is just one shy of the team record in that category, shared by Wally Chambers (1979) and Broderick Thomas (1991).
McCown's first start produced a 466-yard offensive output, the fifth-highest total in team history. However, Tampa Bay's offense wasn't nearly as proficient in Houston, squandering excellent field position on several occasions in the first half. They did convert a Rosenfels fumble into a touchdown early in the second quarter, but two other possessions that started on the Texans' side of midfield failed to result in a single first down, ending in punts. After rolling up 285 first-half yards in New Orleans, McCown and the Bucs went into halftime with just 103 yards against the Texans.
Still, Tampa Bay did win the overall yardage battle, 305-257. CB Ronde Barber led the Buccaneers' defense with 10 tackles and a pass defensed, and the Bucs held Houston to 2.6 yards per carry on 26 totes. The kick-return touchdown and difficulty getting off the field on third down kept the Bucs from being quite as stingy on the scoreboard. Houston's 28 points were the most allowed by Tampa Bay since Indianapolis won a 33-14 decision over the Buccaneers in Week Five.
McCown came out firing, throwing on five of the Bucs' first six plays, all completions. WR Michael Clayton ran a little pivot route on third-and-six and McCown hit him for a gain of 19 down to Houston's 42. Three plays later, after a Graham run on third-and-two was stuffed at the 34, the Bucs elected to go for it and failed when Graham was chipped in the backfield and his dive came up a yard short.
Rosenfels was also sharp to start the game, hitting his first two passes to Johnson and WR Kevin Walter for a total of 17 yards, putting the Texans just over midfield. Johnson's next grab gained 15 more as the Texans picked up a delayed blitz by LB Barrett Ruud. Dayne made a sparkling one-handed catch on third-and-six for a new set of downs at the Bucs' 24, and Johnson picked up the next third-down with a short grab over the middle. The final third down of the drive was a little swing pass to Johnson that the receiver easily walked into the end zone for the game's first score.
WR Micheal Spurlock gave the Bucs' offense a boost moments later, however, by returning a kickoff 45 yards to the Houston 47. However, a false start by T Jeremy Trueblood helped the Texans defense force a three-and-out, with Josh Bidwell punting it down to the 14-yard line.
After allowing one more third-down conversion to start the ensuing drive, the Bucs' defense finally stopped the next third down…and got the ball back for the offense all at once. On two consecutive plays, White shot around left tackle Ephraim Salaam and hit Rosenfels' arm as it was cocked. On the first play, the ball fluttered out into the middle of the field for an incompletion, but on the second one Rosenfels was forced into a fumble and Haye recovered.
A nine-yard run on a draw by Graham put the Bucs into a third-and-inches at the four-yard line. McCown adjusted the play just before the snap, and found a good call, sending Graham over right guard for a four-yard touchdown, tying the score at 7-7 four minutes into the second period.
The Bucs' defense forced a punt on the next drive, but the offense had to start at its own 13 after Ike Hilliard's fair catch in traffic. A few plays later, Hilliard was at the center of a big play that quickly turned sour. Catching a short pass in the left flat on third-and-seven, Hilliard faked his way past the Texans' first tackler and was able to get past the first-down sticks, but he then fumbled near the left sideline. S Will Demps forced and recovered the fumble for Houston, giving the Texans possession at the Bucs' 23-yard line. Hilliard also suffered a shoulder injury on the play and did not come back into the game.
The Texans needed just three plays to put the ball into the end zone after that turnover, two of them Rosenfels strikes to Walter. The second was a quick strike over the middle that Walter caught despite tight coverage from LB Cato June, just extending the ball over the goal line as he was tackled.
The Bucs still had four minutes to work with in the half and came out in a no-huddle attack. However, the Texans' defense stood firm and the Bucs had to punt with almost no time drained off the clock. That gave Houston another shot before halftime, but Bidwell's 55-yard punt and Maurice Stovall's perfect coverage dropped return man Jacoby Jones at the 10. Houston took the clock down to the two-minute warning before punting it back, but Matt Turk's 31-yard punt went out of bounds at the Houston 48.
The Bucs' offense stalled again, though, thanks in part to N.D. Kalu's second-down sack, and Bidwell punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback. Houston tried to make the most of the remaining minute, but White's second sack of the game ended that thought and the Texans took their seven-point lead into the intermission.
Houston got the ball to start the second half…that is, they would have if the Texans' return team hadn't taken care of matters on its own. WR Andre' Davis took the opening kickoff of the third quarter, got to the right sideline and made it around the Bucs' coverage, barely avoiding stepping out of bounds. The result was a 97-yard touchdown return that gave Houston a 21-7 lead.
Tampa Bay scored almost as quickly, though they had to bring their offense on the field. Starting at their own 31, the Bucs needed just four plays to score: a 31-yard grab by TE Alex Smith down the seam; a seven-yard sideline catch by TE Anthony Becht; a 20-yard run up the middle by Graham; and an 11-yard pitch around right end by Graham.
The Bucs' defense stepped up with a quick stop and Tampa Bay got the ball back at its own 31. An 18-yard strike to Galloway got the ball over midfield, but McCown just missed two open men on consecutive deep balls – Smith on the first and Galloway on the second – and the Bucs had to punt.
Houston came right back with a strong drive, moving into Buccaneer territory on a nine-yard sideline catch by Walter on third-and-seven. Yet another third-down conversion, this one on a rollout, nine-yard toss to Daniels, put the ball at the Buccaneers' 25 as the third quarter neared its end.
That led to the aforementioned exchange of fumbles at the end of the period. Houston scored on the first play of the fourth quarter, as Rosenfels threw a four-yard dart to Daniels in the back of the end zone. The Texans thus restored their 14-point lead, though Tampa Bay came right back with a nice drive on the next possession. Once again operating out of a no-huddle, McCown hit Galloway twice to get the ball down to Houston's 26. However, a false start by Arron Sears and a sack by LB Morlon Greenwood put the Bucs into an unworkable third-and-24 and McCown fired incomplete to Graham. Bidwell hopped a punt down to the five where it was downed by the Bucs' coverage team.
The ensuing drive gained just 28 yards but, more importantly, chewed more than six minutes off the clock. When Tampa Bay next possessed the ball, after a Spurlock fair catch at the Bucs' 19, there was just 4:50 remaining.
The Bucs got the ball back two more times but couldn't convert either possession into points. After a three-and-out and a punt, Houston took the clock down to the two-minute warning before giving the ball back. McCown then led the Bucs from their own seven to the Houston seven, but a third-down sack by Mario Williams forced the Bucs into a desperation fourth-down pass to Galloway that fell incomplete.
With the loss, the Buccaneers fell to 8-5 on the season, including 1-3 against AFC South opponents. Houston improved to 6-7.
Game Notes: Sunday's game marked the Buccaneers' first regular-season appearance at Reliant Stadium. Tampa Bay won the only previous Bucs-Texans regular-season meeting, at Raymond James Stadium in 2003. … CB Ronde Barber made his 158th start as a Buccaneer on Sunday. That ties him for sixth place on Tampa Bay's all-time starts list with FB Mike Alstott. Barber needs two more starts to match former C Tony Mayberry for fifth place. … DE Kevin Carter made the 200th start of his NFL career, opening the game at left defensive end. … The Bucs are now 1-3 this season when their opponent scores first. They are 7-2 when they get the game's first points … WR Micheal Spurlock's 45-yard kickoff return in the first quarter is the Bucs' longest of the season so far. … TE Alex Smith's 31-yard catch in the third quarter was the 100th reception of his three-year NFL career. … Houston tied a single-season franchise record with its sixth win.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB Michael Pittman, RB Lionel Gates, LB Jeremiah Trotter, G Dan Buenning, TE Keith Heinrich, DE Greg Spires, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Jeff Garcia. Pittman, Spires and Garcia were out due to injury.
The Texans declared the following eight players inactive: QB Matt Schaub, CB Dexter Wynn, LB William Kershaw, LB Danny Clark, C Drew Hodgdon, T Jordan Black, T Brandon Frye and WR David Anderson. Schaub and Clark were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Ike Hilliard sustained a shoulder injury in the second quarter and did not return.
For the Texans, G Chester Pitts left the game in the third quarter but returned after a few plays.