Earnest Graham lay on the turf at the opposing 47-yard line, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stunning 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals not complete until the ball was trapped under his chest.
Perhaps it was fitting that one of the Bucs' most rock-solid veterans would finally secure the victory, as he did when he ended a crazy lateral-filled kickoff return in the game's final second. Earlier, Graham had also turned in a 61-yard run and scored a touchdown on an acrobatic one-yard carry.
But Sunday's win, which could prove to be a turning point for a very young Tampa Bay team, was as much about redemption and rebirth.
The redemption came in the form of a nearly-impossible clutch catch by third-year wide receiver Micheal Spurlock, the converted quarterback. Spurlock had fumbled on a kickoff return in the third quarter, allowing Cincinnati to drive for the go-ahead touchdown and take a 21-14 lead in the fourth period. After S Sabby Piscitelli intercepted a deflected pass in the game's final minute, Spurlock dragged his toes on a deep out and pulled in a 21-yard pass from QB Josh Freeman with five seconds to play. Just like that, a potential 52-yard field goal try by Connor Barth became a 31-yarder and Barth made it with ease to put the Bucs ahead with one second to play.
Spurlock's catch was also part of the rebirth of the Bucs' passing attack, which picked up 284 yards behind the precision passing of Josh Freeman, who shook off three sacks and numerous hard hits to complete 20 of 33 passes in the victory. Freeman has clearly found his favorite target, and it's rookie Mike Williams, who leaped over a defender in the end zone with 90 seconds to play to catch the game-tying touchdown. Freeman frequently lofted the ball up in coverage to Williams, who finished with seven receptions for 99 yards, many of them of the acrobatic variety.
The Bucs' secondary featured both rebirth and redemption.
After the team lost star safety Tanard Jackson to a season-long suspension, rookie seventh-rounder Cody Grimm stepped into the starting lineup. And it was Grimm who turned the game around early on Sunday, interception a Carson Palmer pass in the second quarter and returning it 11 yards for his first career touchdown. The team also lost starting strong safety Sean Jones to a back injury on the game's first play, but former starter Sabby Piscitelli stepped in and ended up making one of the game's biggest plays.
After Williams' touchdown, the Bengals tried to drive into range for their own-game winning field goal in the closing seconds. However, Palmer's first-down pass from the Bengals' 47 with 25 seconds to play tipped off Chad Ochocinco's hands and was hauled in by an alert Piscitelli, who then got 31 key yards on the return to make a last-second field goal possible. Spurlock's ridiculous catch simply made things easier on Barth.
Grimm and Piscitelli ended up as the team's two leading tacklers, with nine and seven stops respectively. CB Aqib Talib was next with six tackles, and he also had the Bucs' third interception, a takeaway at midfield that set up Freeman's touchdown pass to Williams in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay's secondary has already intercepted nine passes through four games, including a game-high three by Talib.
The lead changed hands three times in the second half. The Bucs rallied from a 10-7 deficit to take a 14-10 lead on Graham's one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, which followed a pass-interference call on CB Leon Hall, who was trying to cover the acrobatic Williams. The Bengals followed with a 55-yard field goal drive, then immediately got the ball back on Spurlock's fumbled return. That led to a touchdown catch by rookie TE Jermaine Gresham and a two-point conversion that gave Cincinnati a 21-14 lead. When the Bucs' offense had to punt the ball back after a three-and-out with 3:24 to play, the onus fell to Tampa Bay's defense to counter with their own three-and-out. That would be difficult against Bengals' RB Cedric Benson, who had already run for 142 yards (he would finish with 144 on 23 carries).
The Bucs did that one better with Talib's interception, setting up a five-play, 50-yard drive. Williams' touchdown and Barth's last-second field goal gave the Buccaneers their second come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter this season.
The Bucs' own takeaways on defense allowed them to overcome some of their own self-inflicted mistakes. Tampa Bay came into the game with a fine plus-four turnover ratio, having not coughed up the ball more than twice in any of their first three games. However, they gave it away three times on Sunday, and that helped make the dramatic comeback necessary. The Bucs lost two turnovers inside the Bengals' red zone in the first half – a Freeman interception and a Mike Williams fumble.
Palmer started the day's scoring with a 43-yard touchdown pass to WR Terrell "T.O." Owens in the first quarter. Owens finished with seven catches for 102 yards while Ochocinco was held to 20 yards on three receptions. Palmer completed 21 of 36 passes for 209 yards, two touchdowns and three picks but the Buccaneers outgained the Bengals overall, 391 yards to 358.
The two offenses got off to a slow start, with each team's opening drive getting just one first down before fizzling. The Bengals were hurt by two false start penalties while Freeman was pressured heavily on two straight incompletions to end Tampa Bay's first try. A Gerald McCoy pass-breakup and an Owens drop snipped Cincinnati's second drive, and the Bucs' next go-around died at midfield due to a dropped snap on third down.
The Bengals broke the deadlock on their next drive, however, after being set up near midfield by Adam Jones' 28-yard punt return. Three plays later, Palmer went up top to Owens, who was wide open running down the left sideline.
The Bucs tied it early in the second quarter on their first defensive touchdown of the year. Grimm tried to hit Owens again in the left flat but Grimm read the play, intercepted the ball right in front of the receiver and walked untouched into the end zone.
The Bucs mounted the next scoring threat after a wild exchange of plays. RB Earnest Graham's 61-yard breakaway run from Tampa Bay's one-yard line was followed immediately by CB Johnathan Joseph's interception deep in Cincinnati territory. The Bucs forced a punt and Kevin Huber hit it just 28 yards after it was nearly blocked by LB Geno Hayes, with Tampa Bay taking over at midfield. Moments later, Mike Williams caught a pass inside the five but slipped as he tried to cut back to the end zone and fumbled the ball, with the Bengals recovering.
Cincinnati took that possession most of the field to score the final points of the first half. Tampa Bay's defense stiffened in the red zone but Mike Nugent gave the Bengals a 10-7 lead with a 31-yard field goal.
Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and managed to drive across midfield but eventually had to punt it away, not getting much field-position help when Chris Bryan's punt went just 15 yards to the Bengals' 26. The Bengals countered by moving it back to the Bucs' side of the field but missed out on points when CB E.J. Biggers made a fine pass break-up of a deep ball intended for WR Jerome Simpson.
After a touchback, a precise crossing-route pass to WR Arrelious Benn got the next drive started with an 18-yard gain, but the Bucs lost a yard on two Blount runs and thus faced a third-and-11 at the 37. Freeman used his legs to convert the long third down, as he has done often this season, scrambling up the middle for a gain of 12 to the Bucs' 49. Freeman took a crack at the end zone to Stroughter from the 40 but it was broken up in the end zone. Winslow made a shoestring catch on the next snap to get it down to the 18. Mike Williams fought for a lob from Freeman two plays later and managed to draw a pass-interference call on CB Leon Hall. One play later, Graham scored from one-yard out, first leaping over a pair of prone players before fighting to the goal line and extending the ball into the paint.
Cincinnati's offense woke up in response, going to the no-huddle and pounding Benson up the middle repeatedly. Benson's runs of 18, 11 and 13 yards helped get the ball into the Bucs' red zone quickly, though Tampa Bay's defense then forced a third-and-eight at the 17. DE Kyle Moore then gave the Bucs' defense the pressure it needed, forcing Palmer to throw an errant incompletion. Nugent came on to make his second field goal, a 35-yarder that made it 14-13.
The Bucs' next miscue was a potential killer, as Spurlock fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, giving Cincinnati possession at the Tampa Bay 29. FB Brian Leonard provided a key third-down conversion with an 11-yard catch and run, and Palmer found the end zone with a one-yard touchdown pass to Gresham on second-and-goal. The Bengals went for two following the score and got it on a draw play to extend their lead to 21-14.
The Bengals nearly took it away again on Tampa Bay's next play, as blitzing S Chris Crocker forced a fumble by Freeman but Keydrick Vincent recovered for the Bucs after it bounced forward five yards. Two plays later, Mike Williams made a stunning leaping catch to give the Bucs a 37-yard gain and a first down at the Bengals' 43. Freeman was sacked by Crocker on the next play for a loss of eight and the offense couldn't recover, eventually punting away from the 40-yard line. The Bucs were able to down it at the six-yard line.
Cincinnati gave it back to Benson, who gained 16 yards on three consecutive carries. The Bucs held at that point, however, forcing a punt after Hayes upended a leaping Leonard on a third-and-two pitch to the left side. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Huber proceeded to blast a 72-yard punt that carried all the way to the opposite end zone for a touchback. The Bucs couldn't move the chains and had to punt it away again, with 3:17 left in the game.
Fortunately, Talib came up with his big third-down interception, keeping the ball away from Huber and giving Tampa Bay another crack from exactly midfield. Freeman converted a third-and-four with a scramble around right end to the Cincinnati 35. Mike Williams then ran a fade-stop on the right sideline and Freeman threw a perfect pass for a 15-yard gain. On the very next snap, Freeman went to his rookie wonder again, simply lobbing it into the end zone for Williams to catch over the leaping defender.
That tied the game at 21-21 with 1:26 to play, and the Bucs cover team stopped Bernard Scott at the 16 on the following kickoff. However, Palmer found Owens on a post to the middle on first down and that was good for 29 yards to the 45. After a draw to Leonard gained nothing, the Bengals used their first timeout with 52 seconds left. Two more plays moved the ball to the Bucs' 43 before Cincy used its second timeout with 31 seconds remaining. Owens caught a sideline pass on the next play but was flagged for pushing off, moving the ball back to the Bengals' 47.
On the next Palmer's pass went off Ochocinco's hands and was intercepted by Piscitelli at the Tampa Bay 35. Piscitelli returned it 31 yards to the Cincinnati 34. The Bucs had just 14 seconds and no timeouts, so they ran a deep out to Spurlock, who made his stunning toe-dragging catch at the 13. The play was reviewed and upheld and Barth made the game-winning kick after the Bengals called one timeout to try to ice him.
The Bucs improved to 3-1 with the victory and will return home to face the New Orleans Saints next Sunday. The Bengals dropped to 2-3.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers now lead the all-time series with Cincinnati, 7-3, and have won six games in a row in the head-to-head matchup, dating back to 1995. That matches the franchise's longest winning streak against any team; the Bucs also had a six-game victory streak over Atlanta from 1997-2003 and a six-gamer versus Chicago from 1997-2002. … The Bucs have now won four straight road games, dating back to the final two away games of 2009. That marks the team's longest win streak away from home since a give-game run that crossed from the end of 2002 to the beginning of 2003. … Rookie TE/FB Erik Lorig played in his first regular-season NFL game on Sunday at Cincinnati. Lorig was drafted by the Buccaneers as a defensive end this past April but has recently converted to offense. He saw action on special teams against the Bengals. … Rookie WR Arrelious Benn made his first career start, opening in place of Sammie Stroughter at flanker. Both of the Bucs' starting receivers were rookies, as Mike Williams once again started at split end. Benn finished with two catches for 25 yards. … Rookie S Cody Grimm's 11-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter was the Bucs' first defensive touchdown of the season but their 33rd since the beginning of the 2000 season. That's the fourth-highest total in the NFL over that span; Baltimore, Green Bay and Tennessee all had 35 entering Sunday's games. … RB Earnest Graham's 61-yard breakaway in the second quarter was Tampa Bay's longest run since Graham's own 68-yard touchdown burst against Atlanta on Sept. 14, 2008. It also tied for the 10th-longest run in team annals, matching a 61-yard touchdown by Jerry Eckwood against Chicago on Sept. 30, 1979 and a non-scoring 61-yarder by Thomas Jones on Nov. 16, 2003. … Many Buccaneer players wore pink accents as part of their uniforms on Sunday in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, putting the color on their shoes, towels, chinstraps and gloves. CB Aqib Talib stood out in particular by wearing pink socks from his ankles to his knees. … Since the beginning of the 2001 season, the Buccaneers are 21-6 in games in which their defense scores a touchdown … CB Aqib Talib's fourth-quarter interception gave him three on the season and also marked the third straight game in which he had picked off a pass. … K Connor Barth's game-winning 31-yard field goal in the fourth quarter was his 12th straight successful three-pointer. The team record is 16 consecutive field goals.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: CB Myron Lewis, RB Kregg Lumpkin, FB Chris Pressley, C/G Ted Larsen, WR Maurice Stovall, WR Preston Parker, DT Ryan Sims and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter.
The Bengals deactivated these eight players: WR Jordan Shipley, RB Cedric Peerman, S Roy Williams, C Reggie Stephens, DE Jonathan Fanene, T Anthony Collins and DE Carlos Dunlap. Shipley, Williams and Fanene were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, S Sean Jones suffered a back injury on the first play of the game and did not return. QB Josh Freeman was shaken up by a hard hit in the first quarter but was able to return after missing one series. C Jeff Faine sustained a quad injury in the second quarter and did not return.
The Bengals did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.