Slow out of the gate on Sunday at FedExField, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers woke up after halftime to forge a 17-16 comeback victory over the Washington Redskins. They might have kept their playoff hopes alive at the same time.
Amazingly, the critical win was sealed when the Redskins botched what should have been the game-tying extra point after Santana Moss scored on a fourth-down, two-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left in regulation. Kicker Graham Gano had already missed two short field goals in the game, but he never got an opportunity to tie it at the end because a high snap went through the hands of holder Hunter Smith and Corey Lynch eventually recovered the loose ball.
The game, which was played almost entirely in a driving rain, ended in confusion. Many observers believed Moss' touchdown came on a fifth down after TE Fred Davis dropped a pass in the back of the end zone the play before. In fact, the Redskins had earned a first down at the two-yard line four plays earlier, as Anthony Armstrong's catch was ruled a 10-yard play after originally being marked just short of the sticks. The down markers on the field were correct throughout the sequence, however, so it's likely the players on both sides had an accurate take on the situation.
None of that drama or confusion would have been necessary, however, had Tampa Bay TE Kellen Winslow not made a dazzling catch-and-run for a 41-yard touchdown with four minutes to play. Winslow beat LB Rocky McIntosh down the middle of the field and stretched his arms to the limit to catch a pass at the 20-yard line, then eluded several tacklers as he rumbled to the end zone. That score, and Josh Freeman's ensuing run for a two-point conversion, gave the Buccaneers their first lead of the game after a slow start on both sides of the ball.
K Connor Barth provided the rest of the Buccaneers' points with three field goals in three attempts, two of which came after halftime. In the first half, the Buccaneers had trouble stopping RB Ryan Torain, who finished the game with 172 yards on 24 carries, and on offense repeatedly stalled by converting only one of five third down tries.
Washington had 272 yards of offense at halftime, but two things saved the Buccaneers: tight defense inside the 10-yard line and yet another incredible second-half adjustment. Four of Washington's five first-half drives reached the Buccaneers' 16-yard line or better, and yet the 'Skins netted only 10 points out of those possessions. Gano's two misses helped, but the Bucs' defense also held three times inside the 20.
In the second half, the Bucs allowed only 127 yards of offense, almost all of it on Washington's last drive. The Redskins' first four drives of the half all ended in punts and none extended past six plays; in addition, the Bucs robbed Washington of their first possession of the half by recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff, which led to one of Barth's field goals. RB Ryan Torain, playing for the first time in four weeks, was nearly unstoppable in the first half, rushing 18 times for 158 yards, but he and the Redskins' entire rushing attack gained just 14 yards after the half.
On their final possession of the game, however, Washington drove 75 yards on 13 plays to lead to the score by Moss on a slant across the middle. The very end of the drive, the unsuccessful extra point try after a touchdown at the end of regulation, was eerily familiar to the Buccaneers' own 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers in 2003, but on this occasion the Bucs were on the happy end of the event.
Freeman shook off the slow start to complete 15 of 25 passes for 266 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 109.8. He was 11 of 16 in the second half for 214 yards and a score. In the fourth quarter, he completed four of eight passes for 110 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Incredibly, this marks the fifth time this season and the seventh time in just 22 starts that he has led the Buccaneers to victory with a fourth-quarter comeback.
Freeman was helped by a coming-out party by D.C. native Arrelious Benn, the Buccaneers' rookie receiver who has played second fiddle this season to fellow rookie Mike Williams. Williams had just one reception for 15 yards in the game but Benn contributed his first career 100-yard day, catching four passes for 122 yards. His 64-yard fly down the right sideline set up Barth's first field goal in the second quarter, and his diving 41-yard catch put the Bucs in a first-and-goal at the one-yard line with 13 minutes to play. Unfortunately, Freeman fumbled the snap on the very next play and the Bucs had to wait nine more minutes to take the lead.
Tampa Bay's rushing attack continued its second-half surge with another fine game, though the circumstances of the game led to a reliance on the passing attack in the second half. Rookie RB LeGarrette Blount gained 68 yards on 15 carries, but only 22 of those after halftime. Overall, the Bucs gained 103 yards on the ground and averaged 4.0 yards per carry, despite starting their seventh-different offensive line combination of the season.
The victory improved the Buccaneers to 8-5 and while the Atlanta Falcons moved closer to a division title with a win in Carolina to move to 11-2, Tampa Bay remains very much alive in the Wild Card race. The Green Bay Packers' 7-3 loss to the Detroit Lions, which dropped the Packers to 8-5, certainly helps and the Buccaneers will eagerly await the results of the New York Giants' relocated game against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night.
Tampa Bay's defense lost rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a biceps injury early in the game but still managed to keep the pressure on Washington. CB Ronde Barber finished with 10 tackles, a pass defensed and two important quarterback hurries in the second half. LB Quincy Black also left with an arm injury, but not before he contributed eight tackles and his second sack of the season.
Third-and-one problems killed the Bucs' first two drives, the second of which reached Washington territory thanks to Blount's 18-yard scamper. The Bucs tried a quick slant to Mike Williams on third down from the Redskins' 37 but it was broken up by CB Phillip Buchanon and Tampa Bay elected to punt.
Both drives backed the Redskins up inside their own 15, but Torain's breakaway runs kept that field position from being a disadvantage for long. Torain gained 54 yards on his first carry but that drive ended in an unsuccessful 34-yard field goal try by Gano. When the Redskins got the ball back on their next possession, Torain ripped off consecutive runs of 12, 23 and 10 yards, reaching the 100-yard mark on just six carries. That drive, however, short-circuited just into Buccaneer territory thanks largely to Black's second sack of the season.
The pattern continued into the second quarter, as the Bucs' third drive ended with a third-down failure and the Redskins quickly moved back over midfield. Washington's third drive was extended all the way to the Buccaneers' eight-yard line, but a fine stand inside the 10 was keyed by Barrett Ruud's tackle of Torain in the backfield. Gano misfired again, this time from just 24 yards out.
The Bucs took that momentum right into Washington territory, but Blount fumbled on a third-effort run across midfield and DeAngelo Hall recovered for the Redskins. This time, Washington was able to finish the drive, going 54 yards on eight plays for the game's first score. Still, the Bucs held their ground near the goal line, stopping three tries from the six yards line before McNabb threw a one-yard pass to TE Logan Paulson on a fourth-and-goal gamble.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
The second half started off well for the Buccaneers, as Barth skipped a kickoff down the middle of the field and LB Chris Wilson had difficulty picking it up. The ball stayed loose on the field and LB Adam Hayward was able to fall on it for the Bucs at the Washington 34. The ensuing drive didn't get off to the same good start, however, as Blount slipped for no gain on first down and James Lee was flagged for holding on the next snap. On second-and-19, a rollout pass to Cadillac Williams gained only three yards, but an offsides penalty gave the Bucs five yards back, making it third-and-11 at the 35. C. Williams made a dazzling one-handed catch on a third-down pass to get nine yards but the Bucs had to settle for a second field goal attempt by Barth. Barth squeezed it through the lower left corner to make it 10-6.
The Bucs' defense came out firing, too. Not surprisingly, the Redskins fed Torain on the first two plays of their opening drive but Michael Bennett and Roy Miller made hard stops and the two runs were good for just one yard. With good coverage downfield on third-and-nine, McNabb settled for an underneath throw to WR Anthony Armstrong that came up four yards short.
The Bucs started again at their own 39 and turned to Benn for another big play. The rookie took an end-around to the left and found the corner for a gain of 17 into Washington territory. A catch-and-run by Cadillac Williams got 11 yards to the 33, but a second-down sack of Freeman made it third-and-11. Somehow, Freeman managed to thread a pass between two defenders to TE Kellen Winslow, who made an outstanding catch for just enough yards to move the chains. A first-down stretch run to the right was good for four yards by Blount, but his next carry gained only two more. On third down, LB London Fletcher nearly intercepted a pass intended for Spurlock and the Bucs once again called on Barth to deliver a 35-yard field goal.
Tampa Bay's defense stayed hot, beginning with Stylez G. White's perfect read of a screen pass to TE Fred Davis led to a loss of five yards on first down. LB Geno Hayes jumped an out pass on second down and probably would have scored a pick-six if the throw hadn't tailed away. On third-and-15, Moss made several impressive moves on a screen pass but came up just one yard short and the Redskins had to punt.
Special teams were again a winning edge for the Buccaneers. While Gano struggled, Barth was perfect on his three attempts to improve to 17 of 21 on the season. Rookie punter Robert Malone had perhaps his best outing of the season, with a 44.0-yard gross average and a 39.3-yard net average on four punts, three of which were stopped inside the 20. Four of the Redskins' 10 drives started at or inside their own 20.
Beginning at their own 20, the Bucs got 15 yards on a quick slant to Mike Williams and then 10 more on an out to Benn. Three plays later, the Bucs succeeded on a third-and-one at the Washington 46 by sneaking Freeman up the middle. The next third down was even better, as Freeman escaped pressure and then threw downfield to Benn, who made a diving catch at the one-yard line. Unfortunately, the fumbled snap on the next play gave the ball right back.
The play resulted in a touchback, and CB E.J. Biggers nearly intercepted McNabb's first-down pass. Another Torain run got only three yards and Keiland Williams dropped a third-down dump-off.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 38 after the punt but were also unable to move the chains. Freeman started the drive with a nice seven-yard scramble but on third-and-three he was unable to escape pressure from Wilson and had to throw it away. Malone blasted a 53-yard punt that helped the Bucs trap the Redskins at their own 10 with 10:21 to go.
Once again, however, the Redskins were able to escape that bad situation almost instantly. A screen pass to Sellers worked perfectly as Biggers slipped and the fullback was able to rumble for 25 yards. Two plays later, Torain broke around right tackle for a gain of 12 almost to midfield. A two-yard Torain run and a sack for five yards by Hayes put Washington into a third-and-13. Barber nearly sacked McNabb again, forcing a throwaway and a punt that rolled to a stop at the Bucs' 20.
The Bucs moved the ball immediately, with Blount bashing for 10 and TE John Gilmore taking a screen for 15. However, they faced a third-and-seven at their own 48 with just over five minutes to play. The offensive line provided outstanding blocking on third down and Freeman had time to find Cadillac Williams in the left flat for a gain of 11. Two plays later, Freeman moved up in the pocket to buy time and then threw down the middle of the field to Winslow, who made an outstanding catch with outstretched arms over McIntosh. Winslow then ran the final 20 yards to the end zone, juking one Washington defender inside the 10 to put the Bucs in the lead for the first time.
Washington had less than four minutes left when they started again at their own 25. An incompletion intended for Moss was challenged by the Redskins' bench but upheld. Two plays later, McNabb converted a third-and-three with an eight-yard pass to Armstrong, and Cooley caught a 15-yarder on the ensuing play to put the ball just into Buccaneers' territory at the two-minute warning.
After the break, a swing pass to Keiland Williams gained 15 yards to the Bucs' 30. Barber read a screen pass on the next snap and nearly intercepted it. Two plays later, the Redskins converted a third-and-one with a little pass out to the left flat to Moss. Now at the Bucs' 12, the Redskins got to the two with a 10-yard slant to Armstrong, using their second timeout afterward with 32 seconds left. A fade pass to Roydell Williams was well-defended by Biggers on first down, and the Bucs swarmed Torain on second down for a loss of three.
Game Notes: The Buccaneers took a one-game lead in the head-to-head series with Sunday's win. The Bucs have won nine of the 17 meetings, and the two teams have also split two postseason matchups. … LB Niko Koutouvides played in the 100th game of his NFL career on Sunday. … Rookie G Derek Hardman made his first NFL start on Sunday, opening the game at right guard. The quintet of Hardman, LT Donald Penn, LG Ted Larsen, C Jeremy Zuttah and RT James Lee marked the seventh different starting offensive line combination the Buccaneers have used in 13 games this season. … RB Ryan Torain's 54-yard gain in the first quarter was the first run of 50 or more yards the Buccaneers had allowed since 2008. Oakland's Michael Bush had the previous one, a 67-yard touchdown run on December 28, 2008. … Rookie WR Arrelious Benn's 64-yard catch in the second quarter was the Bucs' longest completion since a 71-yarder by WR Antonio Bryant against San Diego on December 21, 2008.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: S Larry Asante, CB D.J Johnson, FB Erik Lorig, G Brandon Carter, T Will Barker, WR Dezmon Briscoe, DT Frank Okam and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. None of those players were out due to injury.
The Redskins deactivated these eight players: WR Terrence Austin, CB Carlos Rogers, S LaRon Landry, RB Andre Brown, G Derrick Dockery, OL Eric Cook, DL Jeremy Jarmon and designated third quarterback John Beck. Rogers and Landry were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Gerald McCoy left in the first quarter with a biceps injury and did not return. LB Quincy Black sustained a forearm injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
The Redskins did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.