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The Tampa Buccaneers (4-7) season ended in Nashville on Sunday after the Titans (6-5), behind a mammoth performance from running back Chris Johnson, had a fourth quarter comeback victory. The score was 23-17. Although running back LeGarrette Blount had 103 yards on 20 carries and Josh Freeman’s 199 yards and one touchdown pass on 18-33 passing were not enough to hold off the Titans in the game’s final minutes.
The game was a final stand for Tampa, who has completely fallen out of the NFC playoff race after its fifth straight loss following a 4-2 start. Bucs fans had a tough time swallowing this one, as they saw a 17-10 fourth quarter lead become a distant memory.
A 52-yard field goal from Titans’ kicker Rob Bironas cut the deficit to 17-13 at the beginning of the final period, but Tampa still appeared poised to end the game on the next drive with a touchdown. After starting at their own 20-yard line, Tampa’s penalties pushed them back into a 1st and 25 situation back near midfield. The offense was unable to make up the lost yardage, and was forced to punt.
The game was then put into the hands of the defense. With just 7:15 remaining they still had an excellent opportunity to preserve the lead and allow the offense to win the game. But Johnson, who ran for a season high 190 yards on 23 carries, put the Titans into excellent scoring position with a 34-yard run to the Tampa Bay 25 after back to back first down throws by Matthew Hasselbeck to open the drive, which began back at the Tennessee 20-yard line.
The Bucs were able to stop the Titans on 3rd and goal from the five after tackling Johnson at the 2-yard line, but needed one more stop, as Tennessee elected to go for it on the 4th down with only a few minutes remaining and trailing by four. Hasselbeck rolled right and threw back towards the middle of the end zone to receiver Damian Williams for the touchdown, giving the Titans a 20-17 lead.
Freeman, who has 2 game-winning drives this season, and a total of nine in his three seasons as the Bucs’ quarterback, aimed to lead his team on another, but was intercepted by linebacker Colin McCarthy at the Tampa Bay 47-yard line. Turnovers was the name of the game for both teams throughout the day due to the cold, rainy conditions.
Each side struggled to take care of the football and there was a total of eight fumbles and three interceptions. There was even a stretch of six plays in the 3rd quarter where the teams combined for three turnovers. “Looking back, we had our timeouts and we had plenty of time. It would have been fairly routine for us to drive down, but the turnover made things difficult.
That’s something that at that point just can’t happen,” said Freeman about the late interception. The Bucs’ defense could have easily lost all hope after Johnson’s second carry of that next drive went to the Tampa 21-yard line leading up to the two minute warning, but they still fought hard and allowed only a field goal with 1:44 remaining.
Freeman would have one more opportunity to win the game trailing 23-17. It only took three plays to move the ball from his own 20 to the Titans’ 34 and things certainly looked promising. However, the Bucs found themselves at the 4-yard line, and were unable to convert after Freeman fumbled on the quarterback sneak attempt, recovered, and was stopped at 26 yards.
The turnover led to thoughts of the 2012 season for the Bucs faithful. Titans fans, however, kept their postseason hopes alive. “We knew that this was a do-or-die situation, a critical situation,” said Hasselbeck.
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