The Carolina Panthers had them sputtering for nearly the entire game until quarterback Josh Freeman completed a crazy fourth quarter comeback that gave Tampa Bay a 27-21 overtime win.
The Bucs fell behind by 11 points late in the fourth quarter, but they never gave up and forced overtime thanks to some huge catches by wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who had six receptions for 94 yards and one touchdown.
In overtime, Freeman was 3-for-3 for 32 yards and one touchdown. Freeman was money late in the game when the Bucs needed him the most. He did a nice job shaking off two early interceptions and finished 25-of-46 for 248 yards with three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, rookie running back Doug Martin continued his excellent play and ended up with 138 rushing yards on 24 carries. He also added 23 receiving yards on four catches. Tight end Dallas Clark, who caught the game-winning pass, had his best game as a Buc with seven receptions for 58 yards and one touchdown.
After allowing a franchise-low 10 rushing yards to the Panthers in Week One, Carolina ran the ball much better on Sunday. Quarterback Cam Newton rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries and running back Jonathan Stewart had 15 carries for 46 yards and one touchdown.
But the Tampa Bay's defense kept them in the game until Freeman and co. finally got things going late.
As usual, the Bucs deferred to the Panthers after winning the opening coin toss. Newton connected with wide receiver Steve Smith for a 10-yard gain on first down, but the Bucs defense stiffened up and forced a punt just three plays later.
The Bucs couldn't do any better on their first drive. After scoring 34 points on opening drives this season, the Bucs went three-and-out after a bad pass to Jackson on third down.
But they got some good fortune when Erik Lorig stripped the ball out of Captain Munnerlyn's hands on the punt return and linebacker Dekoda Watson recovered the ball for Tampa Bay at Carolina's 29-yard line. The Bucs took advantage of the takeaway and went up 7-0 after third-string tight end Nate Byham caught a 3-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone.
Later in the quarter, Tampa Bay's defense continued to stymie Carolina's offense. Middle linebacker Mason Foster stuffed running back DeAngelo Williams for a 2-yard loss on first down. On third down, defensive end Da'Quan Bowers just outworked left tackle Jordan Gross and sacked Newton to force a punt.
The Bucs were moving the football and got into scoring position again, but Freeman gave Munnerlyn an early Christmas gift. On third down, Freeman threw a terrible pass off his back foot to Lorig and Munnerlyn ran in front of it for an easy interception. Munnerlyn, who's fumble led to Tampa Bay's first touchdown, returned the pick 74 yards for a touchdown with :35 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Munnerlyn's defensive touchdown clearly swung the momentum in Carolina's favor. After forcing a quick punt, they got the ball back and started to get things rolling with running back Jonathan Stewart, who caught a screen pass and raced down field for 30 yards. The Panthers would get a first down at the Bucs' 1 after safety Mark Barron was flagged for pass interference in the end zone. On the next play, Stewart bulldozed his way into the end zone to put the Panthers up 14-10 in the second quarter.
After another ineffective drive from the Bucs, Newton went to work on Tampa Bay's defense with his legs. Newton had a few nice scrambles that resulted in first downs for Carolina. He would then threw a touchdown pass, but the play was called back due to an offensive pass interference call on Smith. The Panthers ended up with zero points after kicker Justin Medlock just missed a 40-yarder by inches.
The Panthers would get the ball back with 1:01 left in the half and moved the ball well. However, they ran of out time before getting into field goal range and the teams went into the locker room with Carolina leading 14-10.
The start of the second half looked a lot like the first half for the Bucs offense – no running room for Martin and off-the-mark throws by Freeman. The offense stalled again and went three-and-out once more.
Tampa Bay's defense played well and forced a punt. Carolina got risky and went for a fake punt on their own side of the field. It was a direct snap, but it was poorly executed and the Bucs had great field position after making the stop.
But Freeman once again threw a lame duck and tossed his second interception of the game after his deep ball fell way short of Jackson. It was as easy of an interception as safety Haruki Nakamura will ever have and it made up for the terrible fake punt decision just one play earlier.
The offenses continued to struggle for much of the third quarter until Tampa Bay's got its running game going. Martin had a 10-yard run to kick start a drive. Then, Martin had a 20-yard scamper later in the drive.
Freeman had a key third down scramble to move the chains. Martin looked like he put the Bucs back up on top with a 2-yard run on fourth-and-inches, but he fumbled the ball after crossing the goal line and linebacker Luke Kuechly recovered it for a touchback. Referees took a look at the play and ruled that the call stood after there was not enough evidence to overturn it in Tampa Bay's favor.
That ruling completely deflated the Bucs and their defense fell flat on Carolina's next drive. Newton got into a rhythm and hit several big throws that resulted in first downs. He would put them up by 11 points when he connected with wide receiver Brandon LaFell in the middle of the field for a 29-yard touchdown.
Freeman and the offense drove down the field and got into scoring position thanks to a big-time fourth down grab by Williams. They would get three points thanks to Mr. Dependable Connor Barth, who hit his second field goal from 40 yards out.
The Bucs needed a stop in order to complete the comeback and they got that stop with only about 1:09 left in the game. With no timeouts remaining and down by eight points, Freeman went to work. On second down, he hit Tiquan Underwood, who got hit in the head as he came down with the catch. That play resulted in a gain of 33 yards after the penalty yardage was added on.
The drive would continue after a 17-yard strike to Jackson. On the very next play, Jackson made as nice a catch as one will ever see. Freeman threw it over three defenders and Jackson held snagged it in the back of the end zone with a tackler draped all over him.
Down by two points, the Bucs had to go for two in order to tie and force overtime. Freeman faked the draw play to Martin and hit Jackson on a slant route to tie the game with :12 seconds left.
Tampa Bay won the coin toss again and elected to receive to start overtime. The Bucs fed Martin and he got gains of 10 and 27 yards on his first two carries of the drive. Freeman would then move the chains again with a 13-yard pass to Williams on the outside. Two plays later, tight end Dallas Clark completed the improbable comeback with an excellent tip-toe grab near the sidelines for a game-winning 15-yard touchdown.
The 27-21 win extended Tampa Bay's win streak to four games and means that they swept the Panthers this season. Next up for the 6-4 Bucs is a trip back home to take on the division leading 9-1 Atlanta Falcons.
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