Josh Freeman scrambled for a key first down and threw for a touchdown on Monday. (Brendan Fitterer/Zumapress.com)
Josh Freeman, in his third NFL season, has developed a reputation as a second-half quarterback. And with his Buccaneers on a national-TV stage Monday night, facing a reeling Colts team, he showed why.
After a lackluster first half left Tampa Bay down 10-7 against the winless Colts, Freeman turned it on. He first found Preston Parker for a 13-yard TD to tie the game at 17 in the third quarter, then scrambled for a critical first down on 3rd-and-6 late in the fourth -- a play that set the stage for LeGarrette Blount's 35-yard TD run, which stood as the game-winner in the Bucs' 24-17 win (RECAP | BOX).
No offense to the Colts -- who played extremely hard in Tampa Bay, one week after nearly upsetting the Steelers on Sunday night -- but this was a game the Bucs could not afford to lose.
New Orleans is already 3-1 in the NFC South. Atlanta is 2-2 and figures to get real hot at some point. The Bucs are at first-place San Francisco next week, then have those Saints twice in three weeks.
If the Bucs want to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007, they have to beat the teams they're supposed to.
Indianapolis, sans Peyton Manning, falls into that category. A moment to express some sympathy for the Colts, if you will. In Week 3, Indianapolis took Pittsburgh to the wire, despite losing Kerry Collins to a concussion midway through. Monday, with Curtis Painter making his first NFL start, the Colts were in position to claim win No. 1 on the road.
And let's just get this out of the way while we're at it: Painter should start for Indy for the rest of the year. He hit just 13-of-30 passes but also connected for two long scores with Pierre Garcon.
If nothing else, he gives the Colts a teeny, tiny bit of hope for the future at the QB spot, regardless of Manning's condition.
But even the surprising Painter-to-Garcon connection was not enough for Indianapolis on Monday night.
Freeman was a huge reason why. Of course, Blount's 127 yards helped. Remember back to Week 1: Tampa Bay lost, at home, to Detroit, with Blount on the sideline for almost all of the second half as the Bucs ran a no-huddle offense.
Blount lobbied for more carries -- he had just five vs. Detroit -- in the wake of that defeat. Since then, Blount has run the ball 62 times and Tampa Bay has run off three straight wins.
Make no mistake, though: There's still work to be done in Tampa.
Fortunately for the Bucs, it was good enough against Indianapolis. That's really all that matters at the moment.
Tampa Bay sits at 3-1 after four weeks and has, arguably, not played anywhere close to its best football yet. Imagine what the Buccaneers would look like if Freeman could carry over his second-half heroics for 60 minutes. Or how hot this team could get with Blount rolling off 125-plus yards per game.
The Bucs' stock is still trending in the right direction -- (insert bonus financial commentary:) one of the few stocks in America doing that these days. Without Freeman's second-half effort Monday night, that would not be the case.
There would have been no excuse for the Buccaneers to lose Monday night to the Colts.