The Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned from their bye week with fresh legs and ran past the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday for a 26-14 win that substantially improves their chances to make the postseason. At the urging of Head Coach Bruce Arians, Buccaneers players treated the game as if the playoffs had already begun, which made it a must-win…and win they did.
There were a number of outstanding individual performances that combined to produce the desired outcome. It wasn't one of the Buccaneers' most prolific days on offense but Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 120.7. Scotty Miller ran a perfect post route for the Buccaneers' longest touchdown catch of the year, which gave the home team a lead it wouldn't relinquish. Ronald Jones sealed the game late with some tough runs and the offensive line not only blocked for a 107-yard ground game but also did not allow Brady to be sacked.
Tampa Bay's defense turned up the heat in the second half and finished with six sacks, tying a season high. Shaquil Barrett led the way with two of those sacks but four other players got into the mix, including precocious rookie Antoine Winfield with his third of the season. It was a career day for Winfield against the team he grew up rooting for while his father played nine seasons in Minnesota. Ryan Succop showed how much difference it can make to have a reliable kicker.
So who stands out above the rest? After every Buccaneers win this season, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are nominating one player each for a vote by the fans as to who deserves that week's Game Ball. The fans will then determine the winner in a poll at the bottom of this page, voting either for Carmen's choice or my choice…or if you aren't satisfied with the candidates we put forth, you can choose "other." Since we have decided not to duplicate picks in any given week, we're alternating the order of selection and it's my turn to go first.
Scott Smith: Shaquil Barrett
I'll admit, I was very tempted to go with "the offensive line," but I already pulled that gimmick in our last Game Ball article and didn't think I should go back to the well so soon. So I'll turn to the defense, which absorbed some early shots from the Vikings' ground game but just kept making big plays when it mattered, particularly when the Vikings got into scoring range.
In fact, each of Minnesota's first four drives in the game got to at least Tampa Bay's 32, and yet after the dust had settled from those possessions the Vikings only had six points. Later, as the Vikings were trying to mount a late comeback, two more of their drives crossed midfield, one of them even reaching a first-and-goal, but neither of them resulted in points. Shaquil Barrett was a big reason why.
On the opening drive of the game, the Vikings got a first-and-10 at the Buccaneers' 38, primarily on the strength of Dalvin Cook's tackle-breaking runs, and then faced third-and-four at the 32. That's when Barrett stunted inside and found an open lane to quarterback Kirk Cousins, closing ground in a flash for an eight-yard second. Not only did that kill the drive, but it pushed the Vikings out of field goal range (as it would turn out, Minnesota didn't actually have a field goal range Sunday, as Dan Bailey missed all three of his tries) and they had to punt.
Barrett was around Cousins all day, finishing with a team-high three quarterback hits. His second sack finished off the aforementioned drive that reached first-and-goal in the fourth quarter. After Winfield dropped Cousins and forced a fumble that the quarterback was able to recover for a loss of eight yards on second down, Barrett doubled down with another sack for eight yards on third down. That made it fourth-and-28 back at the 28, and even though the Vikings had clearly lost confidence in kicker Dan Bailey by that point they figured a 46-yard field goal had better odds than a long and desperate fourth-down pass. Bailey missed and the Vikings' fate was essentially sealed.
Tampa Bay's defense had more trouble than usual stopping Minnesota's run game, but when the Vikings were forced to throw more regularly in an attempted comeback, Buccaneer defenders went on the hunt in the second half and had Cousins constantly on the run. Or on the ground. Barrett led that charge and is my nominee for the Game Ball. Carmen?
Carmen Vitali: QB Tom Brady
Barrett and any one of those defensive players that ended up with a sack on Sunday are hard to vote against but I do want to talk about Brady's efficiency throughout the game. He had that aforementioned 120.7 passer rating when all was said and done, throwing for two touchdowns – one of which might have been his most impressive all year. In the second quarter, Brady found wide receiver Scotty Miller ahead of his defender in the middle of the field and gunning for the end zone. Brady unleashed an absolutely perfect throw for a 48-yard touchdown that was all air yards as Miller came down with the perfectly placed ball in the end zone. Miller said after the game he was the third read on the play – which is a direct testament to the play of the offensive line, allowing Brady time and Brady himself for being able to stay patient and let the play develop. Oh, and also having the ability to chuck it 50 yards downfield with pinpoint accuracy.
The win kept Brady unbeaten against the Minnesota Vikings, now 6-0 in his career when facing them. It also snapped a two-game losing streak for the Buccaneers. Brady himself hasn't lost three games in a row since 2002 (when he lost four in a row) and he wasn't about to do it again. That is seriously impressive.
Now, from those two choices, who do you think should get the Game Ball for Tampa Bay's win over the Vikings in Week 14? If you think that neither Carmen nor I nominated the best choice, you can also choose "Other." Vote in the poll below.