Freeman again shows poise with fourth-quarter heroics
Large patches of empty seats already had begun to appear at Paul Brown Stadium, even though more than three minutes remained in the game. Fans probably assumed their hometown Cincinnati Bengals had things under control with a seven-point lead, so it seemed like a good time to beat the traffic.

Not so long ago, that was a safe move. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren't much of a threat to spoil an early ride home for impatient fans, but Josh Freeman is the quarterback now and things have changed.

This guy is a different cat than we're used to seeing under center for the men of pewter. In situations such as these, Freeman's teammates say he is stone-faced, emotionless, and completely driven. When he gets the football in his hands, it's best to wait around until the closing act. In this case that was a 24-21 Bucs victory that to the uninitiated might have seemed improbable.

"I just want to win," Freeman said. "A lot of people go into a two-minute drive and they're afraid to make a mistake to lose the game. I want to make the play to win the game. I love winning a lot more than I'm scared of losing."

It wasn't just the 20 completions in 33 attempts, or the 280 yards he threw for, or even the way he outplayed his more glamorous rival, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer. It was more about Freeman's flair. He has turned the fourth quarter into his own personal stage, and because of that the Bucs have become one of the National Football League's real surprise stories of this season.

It was a group effort, of course. Freeman's escape act wouldn't have happened if his teammates didn't get him the ball. But when Aqib Talib and Sabby Piscitelli intercepted Palmer twice in the closing minutes, Freeman made the most of the opportunity.

He completed a pair of passes to Mike Williams, including a 20-yarder for a game-tying touchdown. Moments later, his 21-yard completion to Micheal Spurlock who made a tremendous tippy-toe catch along the sideline in the closing seconds set up Connor Barth's winning 31-yard field goal.

"He never gets shook. That's a big, big quality to have. To have him as our leader, I wouldn't want anyone else," running back Earnest Graham said. "His face doesn't change. He knows we're one play away from being right back in it."

Freeman basically got the stuffing knocked out of him all day from a variety of Bengals' blitz packages. Defenders flew from every angle on seemingly every play. It appeared at times like they were coming from neighboring Kentucky across the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge over the Ohio River.

Freeman got knocked around, down, sideways, you name it. He even got knocked out for a couple of plays late in the first quarter after he was hit under his chin by defensive end Frostee Rucker. "It's like, 'No, no, get up Josh,' " cornerback Ronde Barber said.

Left tackle Donald Penn had a close-up view when Freeman brought the huddle to attention after Talib's interception with 2:28 to play. The Bucs had the ball at the 50, trailing by seven.

"He was the only one talking in the huddle," Penn said. "We have so much confidence in him. You can't teach that heart. You can't grab some guy off the street and teach that. You have to be born with it. The guy is a warrior. I can't say enough about him."

The Bucs have never had a guy quite like Freeman, at least not since the days of yore with Doug Williams. No more stopgap quarterbacks, no more short-term rentals or mercenaries looking for a gig. Freeman is becoming exactly what the Bucs hoped he'd be when they used their first draft pick on him in 2009.

Since he became the starter 13 games ago, Freeman has brought the Bucs from behind to win four times in the fourth quarter, including twice this year. He has been the starting quarterback in four consecutive road wins for the Bucs. "Nothing fazes him. He's just relentless in his want to succeed," Barber said.

We've known that, of course, and now they know it in Cincinnati. Well, some of them do anyway. Those who left early will just have to take our word for it. Next time, it's probably a good idea to stay until the end when Freeman has the ball.

About the writer
Joe Henderson writes a regular Sunday column for The Tampa Tribune for many years although during the NFL season, turns his attentions to the Buccaneers and often writes gameday features for the paper and TBO.com.