Not many people around the country saw this one coming, but the Tampa Bay Bucs just put the league on notice: They’re in the hunt.
And it’s not just afterthought teams like San Francisco and Chicago that the Bucs are able to hang with anymore. Sunday’s 14-5 statement home win over the Seattle Seahawks comes one week after their original statement win of the season in Kansas City.
At 6-5, the Bucs assured the fan base it will have winning football team when the calendar flips to December for the first time since being 6-5 in 2012.
Tampa Bay raced out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead Sunday and never looked back. Both scores came on passes from quarterback Jameis Winston to wide receiver Mike Evans. A 3-yard score capped the game’s opening drive and a 23-yarder finished off the Bucs’ second drive.
The Bucs never scored again, but they also didn’t need to with their defense turning in its best all-around performance of the season.
An extra field goal or touchdown would have relieved some stress, though. Tampa Bay spent the entire second half preserving its small 14-5 lead and the team succeeded. Icing the game for good was safety Bradley McDougald intercepting Wilson at the Bucs 2 with less than two minutes remaining. The play put a bow on a fantastic effort from McDougald. After returning the pick 32 yards, Winston and the Bucs were able to erase the final 1:19 in the victory formation.
Tampa Bay should have put the game away a few minutes earlier, but an ill-timed illegal hands to the face penalty from right tackle Demar Dotson wiped out Winston’s 10-yard touchdown strike to tight end Cameron Brate.
It was the dominant first period that truly set the tone. Tampa Bay outgained Seattle 150-23 in those first 15 minutes and that trend held throughout the majority of the game. At halftime the Bucs held a yardage advantage of 238-70 and Seattle was credited with just one single net passing yard because of the 19 deducted sack yards.
Bucs defenders made Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s cross-country trip to Tampa Bay a miserable one by taking him down six times and hitting him on five other occasions. Players spread the sack-generating love around Sunday, with Noah Spence and Gerald McCoy leading the way with 1.5 each. Also walloping Wilson were Kwon Alexander, Robert Ayers Jr. and Ryan Russell.
Offensively, the Winston-to-Evans connection led the way once again. Plenty of talk entering Sunday focused on the Mike Evans vs. Richard Sherman battle that turned into a one-sided affair.
Winston completed 21 of 28 pass attempts for 220 yards and the two scores. One of the few blemishes came after Dotson’s late penalty when Winston tossed up a jump ball to Evans in heavy coverage in the end zone and Seahwaks safety Kam Chancellor came down with the interception.
Evans got 11 balls thrown his way and the third-year pro caught eight for 104 yards. He entered the game with 916 yards and successfully surpassed 1,000 yards for the third time in as many pro seasons. Evans became just the fourth receiver in NFL history to hit that milestone the first three years of his career, joining current Cincinnati Bengals wideout A.J. Green and former stars John Jefferson and Randy Moss.
The game’s feel-good moment came late in the first half. Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner, playing to honor the life of his father who passed away two days ago, jumped a Wilson pass intended for Paul Richardson for his first interception of the season. He returned the pick 16, stepped up with diving pass breakup early in the third quarter and logged a pair of tackles.
Seattle’s only points came in the second quarter and it was a Bucs penalty that got the Seahawks started. After scoring on their first two drives, Tampa Bay got pinned at the 4-yard line to start its next effort. Two plays later, tight end Luke Stocker dragged down Seattle defensive end Frank Clark in the end zone for a safety. Without the infraction, Winston and the Bucs have a new set of downs at the 16 because Winston hooked up with Evans for a 12-yard gain.
The Seahawks struck again after the free kick, but had to settle for a 43-yard Steven Hauschka field goal. Nearly 11 minutes remained in the second quarter, but that kick represented the game’s final points.
One of Tampa Bay’s other close calls came about six minutes later in the second, but revitalized kicker Roberto Aguayo couldn’t convert from 48 yards. The rookie’s kick sailed wide right and snapped a streak of hitting seven straight. Aguayo is now 13 of 19 on field goal attempts this season (68.4 percent). He did manage to make both 33-yard extra points and is 22 of 24 in that department.
Tampa Bay will now prepare to push its winning streak to four next week on the road in San Diego. The Chargers improved to 5-6 this year by beating the Houston Texans on Sunday, 21-13. The current three-game win streak is the first of its kind since 2013. The year prior marked the Bucs’ last four-game run of success, which included a 34-24 win over San Diego at home.