Good Bye! Bucs Roar Back from Week Off with Big Win Over Vikings
Bruce Arians called it a "huge game" and urged his players to adopt a playoffs mentality, four weeks before the postseason is actually due to begin. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers heeded their head coach's words and came back from their bye week with a hard-fought 26-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at Raymond James stadium.
That much-needed victory gives the Buccaneers a significantly better chance to still be playing a month from now. "It's huge," echoed Arians after his team had secured that victory. "We had to do this. It was a big game for us. Guys did their jobs. They rested, they took care of the virus. We came back clean, healthy and it showed up today. We were a very fresh team, I thought, in the fourth quarter."
The win halted a two-game losing streak just before the bye and improved Tampa Bay's record to 8-5, which will keep them in the NFC's sixth playoff seed for another week. It also puts them in position to potentially climb one spot higher over the final three weeks.
By defeating the Vikings, in particular, the Buccaneers gained a head-to-head tiebreaker and kept Minnesota, which had won five of their last six, from passing them in the standings. The Buccaneers are now one game ahead of the 7-6 Arizona Cardinals, with the previously-streaking Vikings dropping to 6-7 and out of the playoff picture at the moment.
"We got the tiebreaker on these guys and this is a good football team," said Arians. "They're going to win some games down the stretch. We're one day at a time and that's what I just told the guys. It was a great win because it started on Tuesday. We had great practices on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday."
The Buccaneers will finish the season with home and away contests against Atlanta sandwiched around a trip to Detroit. After the critical win over the Vikings, three more victories would put the Bucs in the playoffs and even two makes it a likelihood, though the Bucs will know focus exclusively on their trip to Atlanta in Week 15.
"Winning in the NFL's tough," said QB Tom Brady, who threw touchdown passes to Scotty Miller and Rob Gronkowski in the victory. "I've been doing this a long time; there are no easy games. Every one's a battle and this is a team that had won … five of six. They've been in a lot of games and are very competitive. They have some great players on offense, some really dynamic players on defense, especially in the secondary, and it was just good to get a win. It feels good. By the end of tonight we'll kind of move on and get ready for Atlanta and go there. It's going to be the biggest game of our season."
The Buccaneers did not get the fast start they had been seeking coming out of the bye, with Minnesota controlling the action early with a pair of long drives powered by the legs of running back Dalvin Cook. The Bucs ran just five offensive plays in the first quarter and by halftime the Vikings had more than double Tampa Bay's time of possession.
However, the home team went into that halftime with a 17-6 lead, thanks to a string of big third-down plays on defense and some serious struggles by Minnesota placekicker Dan Bailey. The Bucs took their first lead on a precise, arcing 48-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Miller midway through the second quarter, then were able to tack on 10 more points before the intermission. Third-down sacks of QB Kirk Cousins by Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh and an acrobatic third-down pass break-up by Carlton Davis resulted in four first-half Minnesota drives into scoring range creating just one touchdown.
Before the half, a goal-line pass interference call drawn by Mike Evans set up a one-yard Ronald Jones touchdown leap, and another pass interference flag on a last-second 'Hail Mary' pass allowed Ryan Succop to add a 19-yard field goal before the break. Brady and the Bucs only had 21 seconds and one timeout to work with when they got the ball back at their own 28 just before halftime but Arians chose to play the situation aggressively. The Bucs had used their first two timeouts to try to get the ball back.
"When they ran the ball, I didn't think there was enough time," said Arians. "I thought there was enough time for us to either try a punt block or try to get a return. We just missed the return. Tom did a great job of executing and getting us up there for the Hail Mary. We got the call and got the three points and came right back with a touchdown [to start the second half]. Anytime you get that double-score it's huge."
The Buccaneers also had the ball to start the second half and used it to drive for a third straight score. This one was a two-yard touchdown pass to TE Rob Gronkowski after a long catch down the left sideline by Mike Evans. The Vikings would pull back to within nine points on an Irv Smith touchdown late in the third quarter but that was as close as they would get as the Buccaneers' defense turned up the heat with repeated blitzes and four of their six sacks in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings finished the game with a 39:03-20:57 edge in time of possession and 335 yards to the Buccaneers' 303. However, three missed field goals and an errant extra point by Bailey kept the Vikings from capitalizing from that ball control. After the Buccaneers took a double-digit lead, Minnesota's grind-it-out offense started to work against it. For instance, the third-quarter drive that led to Smith's touchdown drained eight-and-a-half minutes off the clock. The fourth-quarter possession that ended in Bailey's final missed field goal, drained another seven minutes.
The Vikings controlled the ball so well because Cook, the NFL's second-leading rusher, consistently gained extra yards after contact on his way to 102-yard outing. He is the first Tampa Bay opponent to record an individual 100-yard rushing game since Seattle's Chris Carson on November 3 of last season. However, he had just 24 rushing yards in the second half as Tampa Bay defenders started to make cleaner tackles, and when the Vikings finally had to get away from the ground game the Buccaneers' pass rush took over. Shaq Barrett led the way with two sacks to give him eight on the season and five in his last five games, but Antoine Winfield, Jr., Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Patrick O'Connor all pitched in with sacks as well.
"The back end did a great job holding those guys up, making Cousins hold the ball for us," said Barrett. "We had a couple of stunts that worked out pretty good that helped us get to the quarterback, and then we just had a motor to just keep going, because he was holding the ball giving us a chance to get after the quarterback."
In addition to his third sack of the season, which forced a Cousins fumble in the fourth quarter, Winfield led the team and set a career high with 11 tackles. It was his first opportunity to play against the team for which his dad played for nine seasons and for whom he grew up rooting before attending the University of Minnesota
"He and Tristan [Wirfs] should be hitting the proverbial rookie wall by now," said Arians of Winfield and his fellow 2020 draft pick, the Bucs' starting right tackle. "We joked about it all week. Both those kids are just mature beyond their years, especially in football acumen. Tristan is playing lights-out; I don't know if there's a better right tackle. And Antoine, he's just so heady. He studies. He's got his dad to lean on, he's got all the coaches to lean on and he puts his time in."
Tampa Bay's offense didn't have one of its more prolific days but Brady finished with 15 completions in 23 attempts for 196 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions thanks in large part to the play of Wirfs and the rest of the line. Brady was not sacked and was rarely pressured; for instance, his deep touchdown to Miller came after he had progressed through at least two other reads.
"I was one of the later reads; I was a deep post," said Miller, who caught the pass on a third-and-four play. "I think he was going through a flat route and an intermediate out route, and then I think he saw the one-high safety creep down and I had a one-on-one with the corner. I think he probably liked the matchup and I was able to just run right by him pretty clean."
Indeed, the Buccaneers' front line also blocked for a complimentary rushing attack that produced 107 yards on 26 carries, averaging 4.1 yards per tote. Jones led the way with 80 yards on 18 carries but LeSean McCoy, who replaced Leonard Fournette as the third-down and hurry-up back added 32 yards on four carries and also caught one pass for three yards.
The Buccaneers also had the clear edge in special teams. Though he did miss an extra point, Succop also made field goals of 18 and 48 yards, the latter of which gave the Buccaneers a more comfortable 12-point lead with four minutes to play. Succop has made 19 consecutive field goal attempts, the second-longest streak in franchise history. Punter Bradley averaged 50.3 yards on three punts, with a net of 45.3 and a long punt of 61 yards.
"I can't talk about Dan [Bailey] but I can sure talk about Ryan," said Arians. "He had a heck of a day. "I think he was shocked on the extra point that he missed but he drilled that [long field goal]. I had no doubt he would make that field goal which made it a [12-poin] game. He's been great for us all year.
It all added up to a win the Buccaneers felt they had to have to keep control of their run to their first playoff berth since 2007.
"That's all we ever wanted," said Barrett. "We just wanted to be in position to set ourselves up to be playing football in January, and we're in that position right
now. To be able to control our own destiny is all you can ask for, and we've got to take advantage of it."
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 14 December 2020