By Leo Haggerty


Tampa Bay (11-5), making its first appearance in the National Football League’s second season in 13 years, went on the road and emerged victorious by a count of 31-23 over Washington (7-9) at FedExField Saturday night.  Surprisingly, the NFC East champs, winning a division with a losing record for only the third time in NFL history, made the contest a lot closer than most experts anticipated.

One of the reasons for that train of thought was that starting QB Alex Smith for the Burgundy & Gold was ruled inactive right before kickoff.  #11 had a right calf injury that hadn’t healed sufficiently for HC Ron Rivera and the medical staff to give the former Utah star the green light to play.  I would guess a big reason was that’s the leg that was horrifically broken and I would surmise that played a lot into the Washington decision to go with third team signal caller Taylor Heinicke (26-of-44 for 306 yards and 1 TD with 1 INT).

The Bucs took the opening kickoff and put points on the board at 11:49.  After moving 55 yards in nine plays that took 3:11, K Ryan Succop booted a 29 yard field goal to give the Pewter Pirates an early 3-0 advantage.

The Buccaneers padded the lead at 2:51 of the first quarter.  QB Tom Brady (22-of-40 for 381 yards and 2 TDs with 0 INTs) found WR Antonio Brown down the right sideline for a 36 yard strike.  The drive took 2:06 to traverse 58 yards in six plays.  Succup’s PAT was blocked and TB had to settle for a 9-0 cushion.

On their next drive, Washington answered with their first points at 12:59 of the second quarter.  RB J.D. McKissick powered into the end zone off the right side culminating a 10 play drive that took 4:52 to go 75 yards.  K Dustin Hopkins split the uprights and the DC Gang cut the margin to 9-7.

Tampa Bay stretched the lead at the 10:03 mark of the second period.  Brady hit WR Chris Godwin with a 27 yard aerial that finished off a five play drive that went 61 yards in 2:56.  The Bucs were unsuccessful with a two point conversion try keeping the score at 15-7 in favor of the visitors.

The Bucs closed out the first half scoring with 1:50 left before intermission.  Again it was Succup with a three pointer this time from 23 yards out.  That ended a 82 yard drive that took 10 plays to travel 82 yards and gave the Buccaneers an 18-7 lead going into halftime.

Washington took the second half kickoff and cut into the deficit immediately at 11:46 of the third period.  Hopkins booted a 36 yard FG to close out a seven play drive that went 47 yards in 3:14 to trim the Buccaneers lead to 18-10.

The DC Gang made a game of it with 2:14 left in the third quarter.  After LB Jon Bostic recovered a Tampa Bay fumble by RB Ke’Shaun Vaughn, Heinicke scrambled to pay dirt to end a 47 yard drive that took seven plays and 3:39 of clock time.  The tying two point attempt failed but the Burgundy & Gold now only trailed 18-16.

Tampa Bay padded their lead at 13:32 of the final period.  A nine play drive that took 3:42 to go 55 yards ended with another Succop field goal this time from 38 yards out.  That stretched the Pewter Pirates lead to 21-16.

The Bucs put some more distance between Washington and themselves at 9:11 of the fourth quarter.  RB Leonard Fournette barreled into the end zone over left guard to finish off a seven play drive that covered 69 yards and ate up 3:22.  Succup converted the extra point and the Bucs moved out to a 28-16 spread.

Washington still had some life and dented the scoreboard at 4:51 of the fourth stanza.  Heinicke connected with WR Cam Sims with an 11 yard toss that finished off an 11 play drive that took 4:20 to go 75 yards.  Hopkins made the PAT and, all of a sudden, it was a one score game with the DC trailing 28-22.

The Buccaneers wasted little time scoring themselves with 2:49 left in regulation.  Succup banged home his fourth three pointer of the tilt with a 37 yarder that took 2:02 to go 58 yards in eight plays.  That put Tampa Bay up 31-23 but the contest was far from over.

Washington had one last chance to tie the score before time ran out.  After two first downs, the Bucs defense stiffened and forced the Burgundy & Gold to turn it over on down leaving the Pewter Pirates offense to take a knee three times to seal a much harder than originally thought triumph.

Now, the Bucs advance to the National Football Conference Divisional Round and that means a trip to The Big Easy to take on arch rival New Orleans.  Kickoff at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against Drew Brees and Company is scheduled for Sunday evening at 6:40.

Check out Rob Kriete’s Buc Up column on Saturday to see if he thinks the Bucs advance to the NFC championship game or if the Saints beat the Pewter Pirates for the third time this season.  Meet you at the TV to find out.  Enjoy.