Bucs Win Thriller to End Season on High Note
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 1 January 2018|
Chris Godwin's first NFL touchdown came on the very last play of his rookie season. Somehow, it sent the star-crossed Tampa Bay Buccaneers out on a high note.
Godwin's 39-yard scoring catch on a daring slant-and-go (and a resulting two-point conversion) capped a 95-yard drive the Buccaneers mounted in the game's final two minutes, without virtue of a timeout, to beat the visiting New Orleans Saints, 31-24. The Bucs trailed by one point and faced a fourth-and-10 at their own five-yard line but managed to overcome the odds and snap a streak of three straight three-point losses.
"It's been like that all year," said QB Jameis Winston, who delivered that final pass to Godwin to cap a 363-yard passing performance. "We've had a lot of games that came down to the end and they just didn't go our way. Today, the last game of the season, it went our way and I'm so happy for the guys. I'm so happy to be able to end this year with a win, so happy for the coaches, to end it with a win for this organization."
After winning consecutive games over the Jets and Dolphins in November to keep their own playoff hopes alive, the Buccaneers played six straight opponents who had postseason aspirations at the time. One of those six games ended in overtime, three were decided by three points or less and one more – in Atlanta in Week 12 – was a 14-point decision in which the Bucs had the ball in the Falcons' red zone in the fourth quarter, trailing by seven, before a failed fourth-down conversion. The last one, on the final day of 2017, the Buccaneers won when Winston delivered the perfect go-for-it-all strike to his rookie receiver.
The Buccaneers were facing a first-and-10 at the Saints' 39-yard line with 15 seconds left and no timeouts before Winston's throw to Godwin. The more common approach in such a situation would be to try to get 10-15 more yards with a short completion and then attempt a game-winning field goal. In fact, Koetter said the final play had a shorter primary option on the Bucs' sideline, and he was shocked when he saw Winston throwing down the opposite sideline in Godwin's direction.
"Jameis went for the whole shebang," said Koetter. "That's the truth on that. That play right there really signifies everything our season has been, right there," said Koetter. "For it to end like that, with all the close games we've been in, we were due I guess."
Winston threw three interceptions on the day but also directed an offense that put up 455 yards against a Saints defense that ranked eighth in the NFL in points allowed and 15th in yards allowed. The Buccaneers were practically unstoppable on third downs, converting on 13 of 18 attempts on their way to 28 first downs. Winston threw repeatedly to Godwin (12 targets), Adam Humphries (11) and Mike Evans (13) with starter DeSean Jackson sidelined by injury.
Godwin record his first career 100-yard game, leading the team with seven catches for 111 yards, while Humphries added seven grabs for 102 yards. Evans was limited to 55 yards on five catches but had two critical grabs on the Bucs' final drive. That was enough to give him 1,001 yards on the season and allow him to join Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only players in NFL history to open their careers with four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
A pair of special teams touchdowns – a 106-yard kickoff return by the Saints' Alvin Kamara and a seven-yard return of a fumbled punt return by the Bucs' Isaiah Johnson – canceled each other out but it was another play in the kicking game that almost doomed the Buccaneers. After Winston scored on a second-effort, one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, kicker Patrick Murray missed the extra point.
It was the first career missed extra point for Murray, whose outstanding work for the Buccaneers since taking over in Week Six included a 42-yard field goal on Sunday that made it a one-point game with 4:31 left in regulation. The Saints took the ensuing possession across midfield and punted with 2:07 left after a Clinton McDonald sack of Drew Brees. That defensive stop was part of a strong effort that held the Saints to 323 total yards and 92 yards on the ground, both well below their season averages. "We never gave up," said Winston. "The defense came out and played amazing. The defense stepped up with a big time play and the offense, we just finished it off."
The offense almost stalled before it could get that 95-yard drive moving. Winston's first three passes were incomplete, but he found tight end Cam Brate on a 12-yard pass on fourth-and-10, with Brate curling into an open zone.
"That fourth-down play, we had run that earlier and it hadn't worked," said Koetter. "But right when Cam came off the ball they were in zone coverage and there was a big hole there. Jameis did a really nice job of not panicking and just taking [what was available]. We had a lot of time – a minute-and-a-half is a lot of time. Jameis did a good job of taking 10-yard gains and not forcing anything down the field."
That is, until he did. The final pass to Godwin found the receiver in stride inside the 10-yard line and Godwin dragged a Saints defender into the end zone for the score. "Coach Koetter dialed up the call and he said we either had to get out of bounds or it had to be an incomplete pass," said Winston. "I took a shot with Chris Godwin and he pulled him in the end zone, so it was great."
The Buccaneers impressively matched the intensity level of the Saints, who had much more to gain with a victory. A win by New Orleans would give them the NFC South title and home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs; the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons were playing at the same time, and a Carolina win coupled with a Saints loss would have given the division crown to the Panthers. As it was, the Falcons won at home, thereby joining the Panthers as Wild Card entrants into the NFC playoff field. The Saints won their first NFC South title since 2011 despite the loss, while the Buccaneers finished 5-11.
For the second straight week, Tampa Bay's offense produced at least 225 yards before halftime but hit the intermission on the wrong side of the scoreboard. New Orleans took a 14-13 lead into the break despite the Bucs leading in total yards, 233 to 125, thanks to two interceptions and Kamara's kickoff return score. Tampa Bay kept the chains moving the entire half, converting on a spectacular 10 of 11 third-down tries. That included a pair of third-and-goal touchdown runs from the one, one by Barber and one by Winston.
The Buccaneers took the opening possession 75 yards for a touchdown, with Winston converting three straight third downs on passes to Humphries, Brate and Evans. After Evans' 12-yard grab on third-and-eight made it first-and-goal at the Saints' eight, Barber ran three consecutive times to get it in, scoring on a one-yard plunge over right guard.
The Bucs lead lasted about 10 seconds, as Kamara took Pat Murray's kickoff six yards deep in the end zone, jogged up to the goal line, hesitated, then decided to bring it out. He wasn't touched, finding a seam near the left sideline and running the rest of the way for a game-tying touchdown. It marked the second consecutive week that the Buccaneers had given up a kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Buccaneers got their second drive across midfield thanks to a pair of third-down conversions by Winston, one on a 17-yard scramble, one on a 15-yard strike to Humphries, but a fake-pitch rollout play ended badly when Winston tried to hit Evans in traffic and it was intercepted at the 35 by rookie safety Marcus Williams.
Brees and the Saints' offense got their first possession after that turnover and turned it into seven points. Brees's first pass of the game was a 43-yard downfield strike to Thomas, who dived and held onto the ball at the Bucs' 20. Two short passes to Kamara made it first-and-goal at the seven and Kamara scored easily on a cut-back run on the next play.
The Bucs had to punt from close to midfield on their next possession after a third-and-one run by Martin was stopped short. Tampa Bay's defense got its first stop on the Saints' next possession after Brees's deep ball to an open Ted Ginn was a bit too long.
Humphries fair caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 25, from which point Winston launched another 75-yard drive, converting three more third downs along the way. The first was a well-designed lob to TE Alan Cross on third-and-one in Bucs territory, and the last was Winston's own scramble up the middle on third-and-goal from the one. On the scoring play, Winston was stopped short but surged forward and then stuck the ball over the line for the score. Godwin had two catches on the drive for 23 yards, including a six-yarder that got the ball to the one. Patrick Murray missed the extra point, leaving the Bucs a point down with six minutes left in the half.
The Saints got into Bucs territory on the next possession but saw the drive stall at the Bucs' 30-yard line when DT Clinton McDonald sniffed out a third-and-10 screen to Kamara and made a diving stop from behind. The Saints sent out their field goal unit but tried a little trickery instead, with holder Chase Daniel taking the snap and flipping it backward to kicker Wil Lutz. Lutz tried to run around right end but Kwon Alexander and Will Clarke caught him a yard short of the sticks.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers' offense gave the ball back near midfield. Winston tried to improve a lob to Barber over LB Craig Robertson but underthrew it and Robertson got to it first for an interception at the Saints' 42. Tampa Bay's responded with a three-and-out and another third-down-converting catch on the ensuing drive, enough to run out the first-half clock.
The Saints got the ball first to start the second half and got the ball to midfield but stalled when Russell sacked Brees for a loss of seven on third-and-three. The ensuing punt rolled to a stop at the Bucs' 10. Tampa Bay got into scoring territory thanks to a 43-yard Winston pass to Humphries, but a scrambling third-down shot at the end zone turned bad when it was intercepted by Williams with eight minutes left in the third quarter.
A 40-yard catch down the sideline by Kamara, who was blanketed by Lavonte David at the time, put the Saints back in scoring range. A tackle for loss by David on a screen to Ingram two snaps later helped the Bucs hold there but Lutz came on to drill a 48-yard field goal to widen the Saints' lead to four points.
Tampa Bay punted on its next drive but that ended up working out in the home team's favor. Anger boomed a 54-yard punt, which Tommylee Lewis fielded at his own 14 before retreating to the seven while trying to get around the coverage unit. Robinson prevented that, not only dragging Lewis down but also poking the ball free. Johnson recovered the loose ball at the Saints' seven and ran it in for go-ahead touchdown.
New Orleans took the lead back on the next drive, marching 92 yards on 13 plays and concluding in Brees's three-yard touchdown pass to FB Zach Line. Brees hit Thomas for 19 yards to get into scoring range, then produced a first-and-goal with a pass over the middle to Kamara for 16 yards. The Saints kicked the extra point to go up 24-20 with seven minutes left in the game.
Tampa Bay took the next possession into Saints territory, starting with a second-effort 12-yard catch by Humphries on a screen. Godwin's 17-yard sideline catch, on which he broke one tackle, got the ball to the Saints' 24 but three incompletions followed and the Bucs brought out Murray to try a 42-yard field goal. He drilled it to make it a one-point game with 4:31 left.