LOS ANGELES — Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians wrote in big letters on the team’s dry-erase board this past week, “Finish.” After surrendering an 18-point lead at the half and losing to the New York Giants at home last week, the Bucs found themselves in a similar predicament against the Los Angeles Rams on the road Sunday.
But this time, they set a franchise single-game scoring record to upset the defending NFC champions 55-40 and improve to 2-2 (2-0 on the road).
With a large group of Bucs fans congregating at the west end of the stadium chanting, “Tampa … Bay! Tampa … Bay!,” it evoked memories of the Bucs’ 1996 upset at the San Diego Chargers, which many considered the turning point under former head coach Tony Dungy.
“It was huge. That’s what young teams have to learn — you have to learn how to win,” Arians said. “This could have easily gone the other way, but it didn’t because we finished — in all three phases — we finished the game to win.”
The Bucs also found a way to honor general manager Jason Licht’s father, Ron, who passed away unexpectedly Saturday after suffering a heart attack in Nebraska, forcing Licht to leave the team.
“We were sitting there, watching college football and [got] that call — I’ve had that call, and it’s tough,” Arians said. “We had him on FaceTime in the locker room and we gave him the game ball.”
Added quarterback Jameis Winston: “I love Jason. … That was for him.”
Game ball goes to GM Jason Licht, whose father suddenly passed away last night.
A huge Nebraska fan, it’s no coincidence that all three Nebraska connections: Suh, David and Barrett (Omaha native), all made huge defensive plays.
This ones for you, Jason. pic.twitter.com/TsHsabUTJy
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) September 30, 2019
The Bucs jumped out to a 21-point lead and picked off quarterback Jared Goff twice before surrendering touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the second quarter. But even as momentum swung heavily in the Rams’ favor, Tampa Bay maintained its composure.
“There was no panic on our sideline — there was a lot of belief,” Arians said. “I think we answered whether or not we’re tough enough to overcome a tough loss.”
Even after Marcus Peters‘ pick-six against Winston in the fourth quarter cut the lead to five, the Bucs managed to do what Arians has been preaching incessantly since he got to Tampa Bay: “Bucs can’t beat Bucs.”
Now they get a shot at grabbing the lead in the NFC South over the next two weeks, with a trip to New Orleans and a rematch with the Carolina Panthers in London as part of a grueling five-game road stretch.
Winston delivered a four-touchdown performance — tied for second-most in his career — while Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones scored rushing TDs and former Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh recovered a Shaq Barrett strip sack and returned it for a score with 1:17 to go to seal the win.
Winston connected with Chris Godwin for two scores — the first on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone and the second on a screen pass. Winston’s decisiveness and the Bucs’ commitment to a balanced attack helped slow the Rams’ pass rush.
The Bucs scored four touchdowns on their first six possessions in the first half, but unlike the previous week, when they mustered just three points in the second half, they didn’t take their foot off the gas, scoring 27 points after halftime: Suh’s fumble return was preceded by a 58-yard field goal for Matt Gay, a short pass to tight end Cameron Brate, a 67-yard bomb to Mike Evans — whom the Rams had doubled up on most of the game — and a 21-yard field goal from Gay.
“Before the play he said, ‘Be ready for this,'” Evans said of Winston. “I was getting double-teamed the whole game and then the safety bit on the play-action and it was one-on-one, and I knew I had it and Jameis threw a great ball. … Chris Godwin said it before the game — we were just playing around and he was like, ‘We’re gonna need 50. We’re gonna have 50.’ We got it with that [Suh] fumble [scoop and score] at the end.”
The Bucs scored 28 points off four Goff turnovers, including three interceptions. The first came on a pass deflected by outside linebacker Barrett that landed in the hands of safety Jordan Whitehead. The second came on third-and-4, when linebacker Lavonte David jumped a slant route. Then in the third quarter, Goff was picked off by Barrett at the Tampa Bay 43 following a hard hit by inside linebacker Kevin Minter.
But they still allowed Goff to pass for 517 yards. He became the 23rd quarterback to pass for more than 500 yards in a game, and the first since Tom Brady in the New England Patriots‘ loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
“It showed the resilience that [the Rams] have, but I have to credit our guys again,” Winston said. “Just to continue to stay on it, not be complacent and just finish. That was our message at halftime. That was our message after the last game after we lost, but now we ended up victorious because we did finish.”
The Bucs were 5-for-5 in the red zone (including four touchdowns), which was a huge point of emphasis during the past week after they went 1-for-5 in the red zone in Week 3.
Scoring in the red zone has been a problem this season for the Bucs. Heading into Week 4, they scored just three touchdowns off 11 red zone possessions (27.3%, 31st in the league).
Gay — who last Sunday missed a 34-yard field goal attempt that would have won the game, missed an extra point and saw another PAT blocked — made all seven extra points and two field goals against the Rams.