The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won games in many different ways over 37 years of football, but never quite like this.
An incredible 11-point rally in the final six minutes at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday set up overtime between the Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers, and the visiting team punctuated its stunning comeback with an 80-yard touchdown drive to open the extra period. The 27-21 victory marks the first time in franchise history that Tampa Bay has won an overtime game with a touchdown. That was due in large part to the new overtime rules adopted for regular-season games in 2012 – after winning the coin flip, the Bucs could end the game on the first drive only by scoring a touchdown. A field goal would have given Tampa Bay the lead but would have also afforded Carolina one offensive possession.
The victory improved Tampa Bay's record to 6-4 and finished off a season sweep against their division rivals. Carolina fell to 2-8.
The Bucs had gone 44 game minutes without scoring after initially opening a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but QB Josh Freeman directed a 58-yard field goal drive and an 80-yard touchdown march in crunch time. The second drive ended in an incredible 24-yard dart into the end zone to WR Vincent Jackson between three Carolina defenders. Freeman and Jackson then hooked up on the two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime.
Freeman then trumped that with a coolly methodical 80-yard scoring drive in the extra period, with considerable help from the Bucs' indomitable rookie running back, Doug Martin. Martin opened the drive with runs of 11 and 27 and Freeman converted a third-and-one with a four-yard pass to put the ball at Carolina's 15. On the next play, Freeman delivered a 15-yard TD strike to TE Dallas Clark, who got wide open down the left sideline and made a twisting, two-footed toe-tap to end the game.
Martin's big plays in overtime helped him redeem his first fumble of the season, which turned a potential go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter into a touchback for the Panthers. Martin converted a fourth-and-one from the Carolina two but lost the ball just as he crossed the goal line and it was recovered in the end zone by the Panthers. The play was reviewed extensively, and the Bucs were hoping the videotape would show that Martin had crossed the goal line before losing the ball, but it was upheld. Worse, QB Cam Newton then drove Carolina 80 yards for an 11-point lead that, at the time, seemed nearly insurmountable.
Martin finished the game with another 161 yards from scrimmage, including 138 yards on 24 carries and another 23 on four receptions. He has exactly 1,000 rushing yards 10 games into his rookie season.
Freeman also redeemed himself with his amazingly calm and precise performance in the final 10 minutes of game play, including overtime. He threw two interceptions earlier in the game, including one that was returned 74 yards for a touchdown by Captain Munnerlyn to cut the Bucs' first-quarter lead to three points and completely swing the game's moment. S Haruki Nakamura also intercepted a Freeman pass near the Carolina goal line in the third quarter immediately after a failed fake punt by Carolina had given the Bucs a scoring chance.
However, Freeman finished the game with 25 completions in 46 attempts for 248 yards and three touchdowns. Freeman has now thrown at least two touchdown passes for six straight games, extending his own team record. Clark and Jackson both had huge days, with the former catching seven passes for 58 yards and a score and the latter getting 94 yards and a TD on his six grabs. TE Nate Byham got his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter on a three-yard reception in the back of the end zone.
Tampa Bay came into the game with a 19-8 season edge in turnovers but lost that battle for the first time in six outings, committing a season-high three giveaways and taking it back just once.
Tampa Bay's late drives pushed the team's overall yardage total past 400 yards for the fifth time in its last six outings. The Bucs finished with a 403-331 edge in that category and outran the Panthers, 167-97. After running the ball just 13 times for 10 yards in the season-opener in Tampa, the Panthers were far more determined to establish the ground game Sunday, with a total of 34 rushing plays. The Bucs' top-ranked rush defense was still strong, allowing just 2.9 yards per carry, but Newton's well-timed scrambles kept several drives alive. The Bucs' defense was extremely aggressive around the line of scrimmage, racking up another 10 tackles for loss as well as two sacks and three quarterback hurries.
Rookie LB Lavonte David led the defense with nine tackles, including one for a loss. DE Michael Bennett added five tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and his team-leading seventh sack of the season. DE Da'Quan Bowers had the Bucs' other sack. The Bucs allowed under 100 rushing yards for the seventh time this season but Newton had a relatively strong game, throwing for 252 yards and a TD on 16 of 29 passes, without being picked off. Carolina's only turnover was Munnerlyn's first-quarter fumble on a punt return that led to Byham's TD catch.
he Bucs got a quick stop on Carolina's game-opening possession, thanks to a third-down pressure of Newton by DT Gerald McCoy. Tampa Bay's offense went three-and-out on its first possession, too, despite an eight-yard catch by Jackson on first down, but still found themselves in scoring position moments later. That's because Jacob Cutrera's hard hit on Munnerlyn popped the ball loose on the ensuing punt return, and Dekoda Watson recovered the loose ball at the Carolina 29.
After throwing on the first three plays, the Bucs came back with a heavy dose of Martin, as one catch and a pair of tough runs up the middle got the ball into the red zone. A heady scramble by Freeman to the six made it first-and-goal and the Bucs' used play-action on first down, with Freeman going deep into his reads and eventually lobbing it to Byham in the back middle of the end zone.
The Bucs' defense got another quick stop and the ball back in great field position after a short punt. A 19-yard catch by Jackson was the only real gainer of the drive, but that was enough to set up Barth for a 51-yard field goal to make it 10-0 less than 10 minutes into the game.
An illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on Carolina's Geoff Hangartner erased a third-down-converting catch by Smith on the next drive, and on the makeup play Bowers sacked Newton at the four-yard line on a three-man rush. The Panthers next punt rolled to stop at the Bucs' 49, but this time visitors couldn't turn it into points thanks to Freeman's first interception in five games.
Facing a third-and-eight at the Carolina 30, Freeman threw an ill-advised pass under pressure and Munnerlyn cut in front of TE Dallas Clark to intercept the pass and break into the open field. Munnerlyn outran all pursuers to score the first defensive touchdown against Tampa Bay in 2012.
G Ted Larsen was also flagged for a personal foul during the return when he took exception to DT Dwan Edwards lying on Freeman, but that just set up an easy touchback on the ensuing kickoff. Martin immediately got the Bucs into better field position with a 20-yard run over left tackle, but a 12-yard sack by Greg Hardy two plays later essentially killed that drive.
Carolina took its first lead of the game on the ensuing drive, which started with a run for 11 yards and a catch for 30 by Stewart. The Bucs nearly forced a field goal with a stop near their 10-yard line, but S Mark Barron was flagged for pass interference in the back corner of the end zone on a pass attempt to Olsen, and Stewart ran it in for the score on first-and-goal from the one.
Carolina's defense kept its momentum going and forced another quick punt, and Newton began running repeatedly. His 16-yard scramble on third-and-13 preserved the drive and put the ball 10 yards into Buccaneer territory. Olsen then broke free down the middle and caught a 32-yard pass at the Bucs' 13, setting up a 40-yard field goal by attempt by Justin Medlock. However, Medlock pushed it to the right and the Bucs dodged a bullet.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half but couldn't do anything with it. For the second time, a big play on special teams created a scoring opportunity a few minutes later, but Tampa Bay was unable to capitalize. The Bucs' punt-coverage unit created a lot of confusion before the snap and the Panthers appeared to audible to a fake, believing their gunner on the left sideline was uncovered. However, S Ahmad Black had peeled out in that direction and S Haruki Nakumara had nowhere to throw after taking a direct snap.
That gave possession to the Buccaneers at the Carolina 37, but they squandered it when Freeman's next pass, a deep throw intended for Jackson, was intercepted near the goal line by Nakamura. There appeared to be some miscommunication between Freeman and Jackson on the play, as Jackson was still running his route into the end zone as Nakamura waited for the throw. The Bucs did manage to force a punt again, this time of the more conventional variety, but once again followed with a three-and-out on offense.
Barber's perfectly-timed run blitz around right end on third-and-one killed the Panthers' next drive, and the Bucs finally started to regain an offensive rhythm. Freeman's heady scramble on third-and-nine picked up 13 yards and Martin nearly broke a long run on the next snap, settling for a 10-yard gain to the Bucs' 43. A nice sliding catch by Dallas Clark converted another third down and put the ball into Carolina territory. Another Freeman scramble led to a fourth-and-inches just outside the one-yard line and the Bucs went for it, setting up a critical turn of events.
Freeman handed off to Martin, who not only got past the sticks but also to the goal line. However, he lost the ball as he entered the end zone, and the play was ruled a fumble and a touchback. Apparently finding no evidence to overturn the call on replay, the officials upheld it and the drive went for naught.
That left the game at 14-10 in Carolina's favor with a little more than 10 minutes to play. Carolina immediately took off into Buccaneer territory, thanks to a scrambling third-down completion by Newton to LaFell for 20 yards. Another third down resulted in a quick 18-yard slant to Smith, down to the Bucs' 29 and Newton found LaFell over the middle on the next play for a touchdown and what seemed like an insurmountable 11-point lead for the Panthers. As it turned out, however, the Bucs still had an incredible comeback in their back pocket.
- Tampa Bay deactivated the following players for Sunday's game: RB Michael Smith, CB Danny Gorrer, S Keith Tandy, LB Najee Goode, WR Chris Owusu, DT Corvey Irvin and DT Matthew Masifilo. None were out due to injury.
- Carolina's seven inactives were: QB Jimmy Clausen, WR David Gettis, S D.J. Campbell, LB Jason Williams, OL Jeremy Bridges, T Bruce Campbell and DE Antwan Applewhite. Applewhite was out due to injury.
- Buccaneers T Jeremy Trueblood played in the 100th game of his NFL career on Sunday.
- Rookie RB Doug Martin put up a combined 161 rushing and receiving yards, marking the seventh straight game that he has surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage. That ties the team record, set by James Wilder from Sept. 2 to Oct. 14 in 1984.
- TE Dallas Clark was the Bucs' leading pass-catcher, hauling in seven throws for 58 yards. That stands as Clark's single-game high as a Buccaneer so far.
- Tampa Bay's successful two-point conversion near the end of regulation was the team's first in three tries this season. It's last successful two-point try came at Atlanta on January 1, 2012, a Josh Freeman-to-Kellen Winslow pass.
- The Bucs won the game after trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter. That marks the first time since last October 3 that the team has prevailed after trailing by 10 points. Tampa Bay beat Indianapolis last year, 24-17, after initially falling into a 10-0 deficit.
- The Bucs are now 15-16-1 all-time in overtime games, including 8-10 on the road. They have won the coin flip to start overtime 17 of 32 times, including 11 of 18 on the road.