Manning, Miller lift Broncos past Bucs
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers knew Sunday's game at Denver against four-time NFL MVP QB Peyton Manning would be a challenge. The 15-year veteran didn't disappoint.
Manning threw for 242 yards and three touchdowns against a depleted Bucs secondary, leading the Broncos to a 31-23 victory at Sports Authority Field. Denver (9-3) clinched the AFC West title for the second consecutive year with the win.
The Bucs (6-6) held a halftime lead and staged a late rally to get back into the game, but a lopsided third quarter was too much to overcome. Trailing 10-7 to start the second half, Manning drove the Broncos 52 yards in just four plays, finishing with an 8-yard TD pass to WR Demaryius Thomas for a 14-10 lead with 8:53 to play in the quarter.
After forcing a second Bucs punt in the quarter, Denver increased its lead as Manning and Thomas hooked up again, this time from 10 yards out, for 21-10 edge with 4:39 left in the third. The Broncos defense then broke the game open, as standout LB Von Miller intercepted Bucs QB Josh Freeman and returned it 26 yards for another score and a 28-10 lead just 35 seconds later.
The Bucs made it a two-score game, 28-13, on the first play of the fourth quarter on Connor Barth's 50-yard field goal. But Denver effectively put the game away on its next drive, chewing up time and tacking on Matt Prater's 31-yard field goal for a 31-13 lead with 7:36 to go.
Still, the Bucs kept churning. Barth connected again from 55 yards in the thin mountain air to make the score 31-16 with 3:33 to play. Freeman then connected with WR Mike Williams for a 5-yard score, trimming the Bucs' deficit to 31-23 with 2:33 to go.
Their ensuing onsides kick, however, was unsuccessful, and Manning and the Broncos ran out the clock. Another scrum in the final seconds, reminiscent of the Bucs' loss at New York to Eli Manning and the Giants, unfolded as Greg Schiano elected to again have his defense charge the line of scrimmage with Denver in the familiar victory formation.
The first 30 minutes of the game were encouraging for the Bucs as they seemed unfazed by the task of taking on Manning and the Broncos on the road. Denver broke on top, 7-0, on Manning's 1-yard TD toss to Mitch Unrein with 8:53 left in the first quarter. But the Bucs responded with Barth's 31-yard field goal, then QB Josh Freeman found veteran TE Dallas Clark for an 11-yard score in the final minute of the first quarter.