Brady tied a career high with four turnovers — on four consecutive possessions in the second half Sunday night — resulting in a blown 17-point lead and a 34-23 loss to the Bengals at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers missed a chance to put a stranglehold on an anemic NFC South Division after losses by the Falcons and Panthers earlier in the day.
“Can’t win football games like that,” Brady said.
Brady threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, and the Bengals converted the first three takeaways into touchdowns on the way to scoring 34 straight points to rally from a 17-0 deficit for a 34-17 lead.
It was Brady’s eighth career four-turnover game, and first since 2011, but that doesn’t come close to describing the meltdown nature in which this one occurred. All four turnovers came in the span of 11 offensive plays. Brady had only four turnovers through the first 11 games.
Takeaways on three straight drives for the @Bengals defense!
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2022
Brady had been 89-0 at home when leading by at least 17 points, and he was 159-3 in all games with that kind of cushion. Peyton Manning dealt Brady two of those three losses — an 18-point comeback in the 2007 AFC Championship Game and a 17-point rally in a 35-34 regular-season victory in 2009.
Ryan Fitzpatrick authored the largest comeback against a Brady-led team, climbing out of a 21-point hole in Week 3 in 2011. And now Joe Burrow, who staged his own 18-point comeback for an AFC championship 11 months ago, adds his name to the tiny list of quarterbacks who have overcome the enormous odds facing anyone who tries to pry Brady’s foot from his neck.
“We had a good first half, were in good position and we literally just gave them the ball,” Brady said.
It wasn’t just the timing of the turnovers, it was the location. All four came in Tampa Bay territory.
Brady threw an interception at his own 31 on third-and-8 with 9:36 left in the third quarter and the Buccaneers ahead 17-6.
He fumbled on the next series as he was sacked on third-and-10 at his own 13 with 5:06 left in third and a 17-12 lead.
Three and a half minutes later, Brady botched a handoff with Leonard Fournette, and Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader fell on the ball at the Tampa Bay 39 with 91 seconds left in the third and Cincinnati ahead 20-17.
Then with 11:54 left in the game, Brady got hit by Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai as he was throwing, resulting in a fluttering ball that linebacker Germaine Pratt picked off while lying on the ground.
“The two fumbles were my fault,” Brady said. “It was uncharacteristic. One of the interceptions was just a terrible throw. And the other one, I got hit. The guy was laying on the ground and the ball landed in his arms.”
It was the first time in Brady’s career he lost two fumbles and threw at least one interception.
“We’re pissed off,” Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles said. “It’s the same old song. It’s Bucs versus Bucs. We play a good first half, and in the second half we come out and we shoot ourselves in the foot.”
The first 27 plays the Bengals ran in the second half were in Tampa Bay territory, and 41 of 46.
Their scoring drives covered 13, 26, 13, 39 and 60 yards.
“As a defense, we’ve got to have that ‘bend but don’t break mentality,’” Buccaneers linebacker Devin White said. “We can’t control what happens on special teams and offense. We would like to play complementary ball, but at the end of the day, when our backs are against the wall, we gotta do whatever we gotta do to hold them to three and keep our lead, keep the energy and keep the focus.”
The first rumble that triggered the avalanche technically wasn’t a turnover, but it was the epitome of a self-inflicted wound.
Leading 17-3 and facing fourth-and-1 at their own 26, Bowles called for a fake punt with a direct snap to personal protector Giovani Bernard. The snap appeared to catch Bernard off-guard and bounced off his left shoulder. He recovered the ball for a 1-yard loss, and the Bengals took over at the Tampa Bay 16.
“(Bernard) missed the ball,” Bowles said when asked what went wrong on the fake attempt.
Was Bernard aware of the call?
“He knew it was coming,” Bowles said. “We needed 1 yard. We had it and we practiced all week. We just didn’t handle the football. It was blocked well. We could have run for 4 or 6 yards, but we missed the ball.”
Was it too big of a risk to give a Bengals team that only had 83 yards in the first half — 47 of which came on a furious, no-huddle drive in the final 99 seconds before halftime — the chance to get a spark?
“No,” Bowles said. “It was the perfect time.”
Bernard initially declined to answer questions about the play before relenting and answering every question.
“I take complete fault for that. It’s all me,” he said. “That’s something I did wrong. It was all on me. No. 25 out there, that was me. I was the one that did it. It was just me. I messed up. Yeah, I messed up.”
White and the defense did limit the damage to three on that occasion. The Bengals eventually had first-and-goal from the 6 but had to settle for a 21-yard field goal from kicker Evan McPherson, which inched them closer at 17-6.
But each of Brady’s first three turnovers led to Cincinnati touchdowns, and the Buccaneers could never recover.
One of those scores came after White sacked Burrow for a 26-yard loss on third down, only to have the play wiped out on a defensive holding penalty against Lavonte David.
And when Tampa Bay desperately needed a stop to keep the deficit at 10, Akiem Hicks jumped offside on fourth-and-1.
It all added up to the Bengals posting their third-largest road comeback in franchise history. And the fifth-largest blown lead at home in Buccaneers annals.
“All of us feel terrible right now — embarrassed,” tight end Cameron Brate said.
“Just didn’t play smart,” Bowles added.
Despite losing for the third time in their last four games and six in the previous nine, the Buccaneers are still a first-place team, maintaining a one-game lead on the Saints and Panthers with three to play.
“We are not playing the way we want to play, which is unfortunate, but we are still first in the division,” said safety Keanu Neal, who helped counter his team’s four giveaways with the Tampa Bay defense’s lone takeaway when he deflected a Burrow pass that cornerback Carlton Davis intercepted on the game’s opening drive.
But even that was squandered somewhat as Brady and the offense couldn’t finish a 13-play drive in the end zone, settling instead for three points when Bowles went in the opposite direction from the aggressiveness he showed on the fake-punt call by sending in Succop for the field goal.
Brady nearly threw another pick on that series, throwing the ball directly to Bengals safety Jessie Bates from the 4.
“We have the ability to play well,” Brady said. “I don’t think we lack confidence in playing well. It’s just inconsistency. Two good quarters don’t win you any football games. And (four) turnovers don’t win you football games.”
The Buccaneers head to Arizona to face the Cardinals on Christmas Day before closing the season with division games against the Panthers and at the Falcons.
Or at least they hope those are the matchups and it’s not “Bucs versus Bucs” again.
“We have a lot of toughness,” Bowles said. “We have to deal with adversity better. We have to stop the miscues and Bucs versus Bucs. We understand that, we talk about it, we preach it, we practice it, we take ownership of it, and we’ll fight to stop it.”
(Photo: Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)
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