Now, these Tampa Bay Buccaneers look like a playoff team. Thanks to a dominant 38-15 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, that may still be their destiny in 2010.
The Buccaneers (9-6) will still have to beat New Orleans on their turf in the regular-season finale next weekend to have a shot at the postseason, but on Sunday they appeared to have a quarterback capable of dueling it out with the Saints' Drew Brees, if that's what it takes.
In cold and windy conditions, second-year passer Josh Freeman turned in the best game of his young career, completing 21 of 26 passes (80.8%) for 237 yards and a career-high five touchdowns. He was not intercepted, was able to scramble for an additional 23 yards and finished with a passer rating of 144.2.
"Josh Freeman was phenomenal," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He threw five TD passes and had no turnovers. He was a big-time quarterback and that's what we brought him here for. He's clutch. He's just out there to try to win. It wasn't ideal conditions for throwing the football today, but we had a big-time quarterback and big-time receivers and we got it done."
It was, in fact, one of the finest days ever for a Buccaneers quarterback, and it came with the team's season on the line. Freeman tied the team's single-game record for touchdown passes, equaling the mark first set by Steve DeBerg against Atlanta on Sept. 13, 1987 and later matched by Brad Johnson on Nov. 3, 2002. Freeman completed passes to five different players, including all six wideouts who were active for the game, but went to his favorite targets when it mattered most, hitting TE Kellen Winslow and WR Mike Williams for two touchdowns apiece. WR Maurice Stovall, who helped fill in for rookie WR Arrelious Benn after Benn's second-quarter knee injury, caught the final touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Freeman became the first Buccaneer to throw for 3,000 passing yards and/or 20 touchdown passes in a season since Brad Johnson in 2003, finishing the game with 3,196 yards and 23 TDs. That pushed his passer rating on the year to 93.5, which if maintained would be the best ever by a Buccaneer who started all 16 games of the season. Unless Freeman throws five interceptions in New Orleans next week – unlikely given that he has thrown just six through the first 15 games – he will join Johnson as the only passers in team history to throw for at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in a season while tossing 10 or fewer interceptions. Johnson, who was in attendance at Sunday's game and was recognized by the crowd midway through, did the same thing during the Buccaneers' 2002 Super Bowl campaign.
Most importantly, Freeman got his ninth win of the season and his 12th in 24 career starts. The Bucs had to have it to remain alive in the playoff hunt. With Green Bay defeating the New York Giants on Sunday, Tampa Bay cannot be eliminated from the postseason hunt this week, even if the Saints win at Atlanta on Monday night. The Buccaneers will head to the Superdome next week needing a win over the Saints plus losses by Green Bay (at home against Chicago) and the Giants (at Washington).
"That was a big-time win," said Morris. "It felt more like Green Bay than Tampa Bay out there today but it was a lot of fun. It's gratifying to win games in December. It's gratifying to win games after Christmas. We set out at the beginning of the season with a Race to 10, and we still have a chance to do that next week. We can only control what we can control. On to New Orleans."
The Bucs surpassed 400 yards of offense for the second game in a row and the third time this season, and not all of it was on Freeman's precision passing. Rookie RB LeGarrette Blount continued his brilliant and unexpected season with 164 yards on 18 carries, highlighted by runs of 53, 38 and 39 yards. On the 53-yarder, which set up Williams' second touchdown catch, he hurdled completely over safety Lawyer Milloy and landed in stride to continue on his way. Blount is now just 59 yards away from a 1,000-yard season, astonishing considering he had just 103 yards after the first six games of the season. He became the first Buccaneer to post a 150-yard game since current teammate Cadillac Williams in 2005, and a week after averaging 7.3 yards per tote against Detroit he was good for 9.1 per against Seattle. Blount is now averaging 5.2 yards per carry in 2010 and the team record is 4.6, set by James Wilder in 1987 on far fewer carries.
Blount continues to battle Williams in a very heated Rookie of the Year race. Williams' two touchdown catches gave him 10 on the season, which not only broke the team's overall TD record for rookies but also tied Joey Galloway's 2005 mark for the most in a single season by any player, rookie or not. Williams caught three passes for 44 yards and would need 76 yards at New Orleans next year to reach 1,000 on the season. Winslow led the Buccaneers with seven receptions for 98 yards.
Tampa Bay's defense was nearly as dominant as its offense, holding Seattle to 174 yards and 3.3 yards per play. The Seahawks scored the game's first touchdown on QB Matt Hasselbeck's one-yard bootleg in the first quarter, but Hasselbeck hurt his hip on the play and reserve Charlie Whitehurst played the rest of the way. The Bucs stifled Whitehurst with pressure and tight coverage, and the 28-year-old passer completed 11 of 18 passes for just 66 yards while absorbing three sacks.
Seattle had 68 yards at the end of the first quarter, playing with the wind at their backs, but the Bucs took control in the second period, limiting the Seahawks to 22 yards in that quarter and just 84 more after halftime. LB Geno Hayes led the charge with nine tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss. DT Frank Okam, starting in place of injured rookie Gerald McCoy, had seven tackles in just his second game as a Buccaneer, two behind the line of scrimmage. The Buccaneers did not produce a takeaway but hardly needed it, giving up just 10 first downs.
Even Tampa Bay's special teams contributed significantly to the win. After Hasselbeck's touchdown, WR Micheal Spurlock took the ensuing kickoff 79 yards to the Seattle 17, setting up Connor Barth's 46-yard field goal into the win. The Bucs also enjoyed a good day by rookie P Robert Malone, who twice hit good kicks into the strong wind in the first quarter to keep Seattle from taking over in the field position battle. The Bucs' coverage teams held dangerous return man Leon Washington four yards on two punt returns and an average of 18.3 on seven kickoff returns.
Seattle scored first, taking their second drive of the game 62 yards for a touchdown. RB Marshawn Lynch got a big chunk of it with a 29-yard run to the Bucs' 27, and RB Michael Robinson took a Wildcat snap and converted a fourth-and-inches inside the five with a second-effort run. The Bucs stopped two Lynch runs from the one-yard line but Hasselbeck scored on a one-yard run by faking a handoff and rolling right behind Robinson. Hasselbeck appeared to injure his back on the play and had to be helped off the field before the extra point was attempted.
Spurlock had a good answer for the Buccaneers, taking the ensuing kickoff return to the right and then breaking back into a seam to the left to find open field. Unfortunately, a protection breakdown on third down led to a big 13-yard sack and put the Bucs into a tough spot, fourth-and-21 at the 28. The Bucs initially lined up to go for it, since a 46-yard field goal into the wind was a risky proposition. However, Morris called a timeout and changed his mind, and Barth impressively drilled a line drive through the wind for three points.
Whitehurst came on to replace Hasselbeck on the next drive and threw two incompletions during a quick three-and-out. The second of those throws was the first play of the second quarter, and the switch of ends had P Jon Ryan kicking into the wind. That didn't go well, as his kick came off his foot to the left and traveled just 17 yards before going out of bounds at the Buccaneers' 48.
The Bucs launched their first touchdown drive from there, getting 16 yards on the first play on a misdirection pass to Benn. Unfortunately, Benn was knocked out of the game by a knee injury suffered at the end of the play. A 17-yard catch by Mike Williams and an 11-yard run by Blount put the ball at the Seattle eight, though Blount had to hurriedly come back to the ball after fumbling at the end of his run. The Bucs lost two yards on the next two plays but Freeman still put them into the end zone on third-and-goal by rolling right and shooting a laser into the hands of Winslow just inbounds, giving the home team a 10-7 lead.
Whitehurst's next drive was also a three-and-out, and another short punt gave the Bucs the ball back at their own 41. That was the starting point for another very efficient scoring drive, as Freeman found Winslow for a 21-yard gain on third-and-four from the Seattle 41 to put the ball right on the 20. This one went to third down as well, but Freeman stood in and took a hit as he lobbed a touchdown pass over the middle to Mike Williams. Williams shook CB Marcus Trufant at the five-yard line, cut back to the ball and then powered through Trufant into the end zone.
The Bucs got the ball back one more time with 2:39 left in the half, beginning at their own nine, and once again launched a strong drive. However, after reaching the Seattle 24-yard line, the Bucs stalled and had to try a 44-yard field goal, and Barth's attempt was blocked by Craig Terrill.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
Seattle got the ball first to start the second half but wasn't able to gain a first down. LB Adam Hayward nearly intercepted Whitehurst's second-down pass, and the QB's attempt to scramble on third-and-nine was ill-advised, with Hayes closing ground on him instantly.
The Bucs had to start their first drive of the second half at their own two-yard line after Spurlock let the punt hit the ground at the 25 and it shot towards the end zone. They were also going against the wind in the third quarter, but that didn't stop Freeman from finding Winslow deep over the middle for a gain of 29 yards to the Bucs' 32. Three plays later, Freeman converted a third-and-two with a pass over the middle to rookie WR Preston Parker, and then Blount ripped off a 20-yard run over right tackle on the next play. After a 10-yard catch-and-run to Stovall, Freeman eluded a Seattle rush, slid right and threw a pass to Winslow, who made a sliding catch at the one. Before he could be touched, Winslow got to his feet and leapt over a Seattle tackler into the end zone for his second score of the game. Seattle Head Coach Pete Carroll challenged the play, but both the catch and the score were confirmed by replay.
Seattle managed to gain a first down on the ensuing possession but didn't approach midfield. Hayes had sacks of Whitehurst on two of three plays, the second for a loss of five on third down from the Seattle 28. After the punt, the Bucs started again at their own 44 with three minutes left in the third quarter. That's when Blount pulled off his latest hurdle move, giving Milloy something he may have not seen before in his 15-year NFL career. After finding a seam over right guard, Blount leapt over Milloy and landed in stride, continuing on down to the Seattle eight for a gain of 44. Two plays later, Freeman pulled off an incredible play fake and lobbed a touchdown pass to Mike Williams in the back right corner to give the Bucs a 31-7 lead.
A 32-yard run by Washington allowed Seattle to start its next drive near midfield, and they got a first down in Bucs territory on Whitehurst's third-down pass to WR Golden Tate. The Bucs forced a fourth-and-eight after that, but the Seahawks went for it and converted on Carlson's 12-yard catch over the middle. Forsett eluded several tacklers on a short pass on the next play to get 14 yards down to the Bucs' 16, but two more short passes were stifled quickly to make it third-and-10. After calling a timeout, the Seahawks gave a delayed handoff to Washington and he scampered around right end for a 16-yard score. Seattle went for two and got it on a pass to Ben Obomanu to make it 31-15 with 10 minutes to play.
The Bucs weren't exactly cowed by Seattle's touchdown, immediately driving back into scoring territory. Blount did most of the work on the first play, breaking free for 53-yard run to the Seattle 19. On the next play, Freeman rolled right and threw a short pass to Winslow, and then broke into a run and provided a lead block for Winslow to get to the six. Two plays later, Stovall ran a slant from the left slide and Freeman zipped it into his midsection for his fifth TD pass and a 38-15 lead with 7:56 to play.
Seattle started the next drive at their own 26 but were hit with a holding penalty on second down and couldn't overcome it. That led to a punt that Spurlock fair caught at the Bucs' 32. The Bucs gave Freeman the rest of the night off and brought in Josh Johnson, who quickly converted a third-and-four with a 15-yard pass to WR Dezmon Briscoe. The Bucs were really only concerned with running out the clock, however, and they punted just at the two-minute warning, resulting in a touchback.
The Seahawks didn't try to prolong the blowout, either, running Forsett three times to no effect to run out the clock.
Game Notes: Seattle still holds the lead in the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 7-4, but the Buccaneers have won the last three times, including the last two in Tampa (also in 2008). … By winning their ninth game on Sunday, the Bucs became the first team in the NFL since the 1970 merger to start 10 different rookies during the season and finish with a winning record. … Three Buccaneer players made their NFL debuts on Sunday: S Larry Asante, WR Dezmon Briscoe and G Brandon Carter. Briscoe also had his first two NFL receptions for a total of 28 yards … Connor Barth's 46-yard field goal in the first quarter was his eighth successful kick in a row. He had his next attempt blocked to end the streak. … QB Josh Freeman's 10-yard touchdown pass to TE Kellen Winslow in the second quarter gave him a scoring toss in 12 straight games. That ties the longest streak in franchise history. Brian Griese originally set the record at 12 games during 2004 and the first game of 2005. … Tampa Bay's 98-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, which ended in Freeman's second TD pass to Winslow, tied for the longest scoring drive in franchise history. The Bucs also had 98-yard scoring drives, both for touchdowns, at New Orleans on Dec. 27, 2009 and vs. Carolina on Dec. 30, 2007. … Winslow has a team-high 63 catches on the season after making seven grabs for 98 yards on Sunday. That's the second-highest reception total by a tight end in franchise history, following his own 77-catch campaign in 2009, his first year as a Buccaneer. … WR Michael Spurlock's 79-yard kickoff return in the first quarter was the seventh longest in franchise history. He now owns three of the seven longest kickoff runbacks in franchise history. … The Bucs have won nine games already with one remaining, after finishing 3-13 in 2009. That six-game turnaround already matches the one from 2004 to 2005 (5-11 to 11-5), and the team will have a chance to set the record next week in New Orleans.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, S Dominique Harris, RB Kregg Lumpkin, CB D.J. Johnson, FB Erik Lorig, DE George Johnson, T James Lee, TE Nathan Overbay and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Stroughter and Lee were out due to injury.
The Seahawks deactivated these eight players: CB Marcus Brown, LB Will Herring, G Paul Fanaika, T Breno Giacomini, T William Robinson, T Stacy Andrews, WR Ruvell Martin and designated third quarterback J.P Losman.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Arrelious Benn sustained a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return. S Corey Lynch also suffered a knee injury in the second quarter but he was able to return. RB Earnest Graham went out in the second quarter with a neck injury and did not return.
For the Seahawks, QB Matt Hasselbeck hurt his hip on his first-quarter touchdown run and did not return.