The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are battling with the back end of the 2012 schedule just as much as they are with the Chicago Bears, the Seattle Seahawks and whoever decides over the last four weeks of the season to make a run at an NFC wild-card spot.
It’s been a brutal stretch—Tampa Bay’s most recent two losses have come against two of only three teams to have clinched a division title. The Buccaneers have played admirably, losing by one point to Atlanta and eight to Denver.
They were still losses, however, and now Tampa Bay sits a game behind the Seahawks for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC.
After Denver quarterback Peyton Manning opened the scoring with a one-yard strike to offensive lineman Mitch Unrein, the Bucs answered with a Connor Barth field goal and a Josh Freeman 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark.
Tampa Bay took that 10-7 lead into the halftime locker room.
After two Manning touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas put the Broncos up 21-10, Freeman made a mistake that changed the scale of the game.
With just under four minutes to play in the third quarter, Freeman dropped back to pass from his 22-yard line. He released the ball as he was hit and the errant throw sailed straight to linebacker Von Miller, who returned the interception 26 yards for a score.
More than making the deficit 18 points for the Bucs to overcome, Freeman called the play a momentum shifter.
"Look at the type of swing that the pick-six is," said Freeman during his postgame press conference. "From a momentum standpoint from a points standpoint, it's tough to overcome."
Head coach Greg Schiano didn’t blame Freeman at all for the interception, but said the pick-six took Tampa Bay away from its game plan and forced the offense to become one dimensional.
"That changes the complexion of the game," said Schiano in his press conference. "Now, we're not able to run the football."
How many games will the Buccaneers win over the last four weeks of the season?
Rookie running back Doug Martin, who carried the ball 18 times for 56 yards, only carried the ball three times in the second half. Martin only averaged 3.1 yards per carry in the game, but had the Buccaneers been able to offer the threat of running, Denver’s defense might not have been able to sit back in deep zones and disrupt Freeman’s progressions.
Tampa Bay made a small comeback in the fourth quarter with a field goal and a Mike Williams five-yard touchdown catch from Freeman, but the Bucs could get no closer than eight points.
Tampa Bay needs all three of those wins before it finishes the season on the road in Atlanta. The Buccaneers would like to have the luxury of their Week 17 Falcons game not being a must-win.