The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 3-4, and three of their four losses have essentially been determined in the game's final seconds. In contrast, Thursday night's 36-17 takedown of the Minnesota Vikings on national TV was won in the first and third quarters.
While the Tampa Bay defense was busy forcing a trio of three-and-outs and a fumble on Minnesota's four first-quarter drives, the offense calmly built a 10-0 lead that eventually grew to 20-7 in the second period. The Vikings managed to grab a little momentum back with a field goal following a long completion just before halftime, but it didn't last long.
Having won the coin toss and elected to defer – a strategy Head Coach Greg Schiano appears to be sticking to in order as a way of exerting some control over the flow of the game – the Bucs came right back out of the locker room and scored on the fourth play of the second half. Another three-play defensive stop and a grind-it-out field goal drive, and suddenly it was 30-10 less than eight minutes into the third quarter. There would be no opportunity for last-second heartbreak this time around.
"That's the plan: start fast, finish fast," said rookie linebacker Lavonte David. "Guys were just flying to the ball trying to force turnovers. Guys were just doing their jobs, and taking advantage of opportunities."
Rookie RB Doug Martin, who had rushed for more than 100 yards in the first half but hadn't contributed to the scoring, took a short pass on Tampa Bay's first drive of the third quarter, turned and saw two defenders and simply sprinted between them before they could close the gap. The result was a 64-yard touchdown that thoroughly energized his teammates.
"He made a great play, we needed it," said wide receiver Mike Williams. "We said in the locker room that we needed to go out and put up points so we can set the momentum for the second half, and that is what he did."
Early in the season, Schiano emphasized the importance of getting off to a good start. The Bucs actually succeeded in that regard on several occasions, but when wins started to slip away in the end, the new focus was on learning how to finish, and in particular how to protect a lead. The Bucs did both on Thursday night, and the result was their most satisfying win in years.
"We played with a little edge," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "We just talked about physically imposing our will on the opponent. We just played our brand of football for four quarters."
The Vikings, who came into the game with a 5-2 record and two red-hot offensive weapons (Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin), weren't pushovers. Even after the Bucs took that 20-point lead in the third quarter, Minnesota made one more run at reversing the momentum. A 64-yard Peterson touchdown run and two very good defensive series had the notoriously loud Metrodome crowd at full volume. Mason Foster, Michael Bennett and Josh Freeman found a way to turn the dial back towards zero.
Foster struck first, sacking Ponder for a 10-yard loss on first down of the Vikings' next drive after the touchdown. Three-and-out. Bennett's first-down stop of Peterson for a loss of two on the next possession led to another quick punt. Then Freeman killed the Vikings' remaining hopes by engineering a stunning 16-play touchdown drive on which he threw for first downs on four straight third-and-longs.
"I thought overall they just battled," said Schiano. "And what they did is answer the bell when we needed them to. After that one chain of events that the crowd got cranked, Mike Bennett gets that big [stop] and that kind of quieted everything down. I thought our guys answered the bell the way you need to when you play on the road."
After Martin's one-yard TD run finished that 16-play drive with just seven minutes to play, the Bucs simply needed to run out the clock, which they did with a defense that guarded against the big play and another fine offensive series in which LeGarrette Blount pounded for a first down and ate up two minutes and all three of the Vikings' timeouts. The Bucs didn't have to sweat out any final-minute defensive stops because they had already done what they needed to do to put the game away.
"That's what you have to do, you have to start fast," said tackle Donald Penn. "Coach Schiano stresses starting fast, and Doug played a great game. That's what we want to do, we want to put the game out of reach and we did."