TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady overcame a first-half pick-six and a 17-point deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Chargers 38-31 on Sunday, giving him the fifth-largest comeback in his career.
It also was the Bucs’ second-largest comeback in franchise history, behind a 21-point rally against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008.
“How can you not believe in him?” said Tampa Bay wide receiver Scotty Miller, who finished with five catches for 83 receiving yards and a touchdown. “He’s the greatest to ever do it. We just needed to go in there and follow his lead. We know he’s gonna get the job done, so we’ve just gotta do what we do and help him out a little bit.”
For the 43-year-old Brady, it was his biggest comeback since overcoming a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons — a setting that was a far cry from the select group of 6,383 fans and family members who got their first glimpse of Brady in person this season. He finished 30-of-46 for 369 passing yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
“We put ourselves in a pretty good hole — and we were gonna have to dig our way out of it,” Brady said. “And that’s just the way football works sometimes.”
Brady and the Bucs’ offense had gotten off to explosive starts the previous two weeks, scoring 43 total points in the first half and fizzling in the second with just 13 points. This week, after trailing 24-7 in the first half, the Bucs scored four touchdowns in the final 30:28 to win and improve to 3-1.
Prior to Sunday, the Bucs had lost 42 consecutive games when trailing by 17 or more points, with their last such win coming in Week 2 of 2011 at the Minnesota Vikings.
“We knew we played poorly. It was just a show of character. I can honestly say, had this been last year, we would have gotten our ass beat by 20,” coach Bruce Arians said, praising the leadership of his captains. “[With] Tom — he’s never behind in his mind, so we can always make plays to win games.”
With 4:08 to go in the first quarter, Brady attempted to find Justin Watson on an out route but was instead intercepted by cornerback Michael Davis, who returned it 78 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-7 Chargers. It was a double out route — a play conceptually similar to one that resulted in a pick-six earlier this season against the New Orleans Saints on a pass also intended for Watson.
Brady’s scoring surge began with a forced fumble by Ndamukong Suh that was recovered by Devin White on a botched handoff from Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert to Joshua Kelley. It was recovered at L.A.’s 6-yard line, setting up a leaping 6-yard touchdown grab by Mike Evans with 28 seconds to go in the second quarter to make it 24-14 Chargers.
Then began an onslaught of downfield passing.
With 8:30 to go in the third quarter, on second-and-8 with four receivers lined up in four verticals, Brady hit O.J. Howard on a seam route working against Kyzir White for a 28-yard touchdown to make it 24-21.
Next came a 44-yard bomb to Miller, followed by a 19-yard touchdown pass to Miller on a crossing route to make it 28-24 and give the Bucs the lead. Then with 12:51 to go in the fourth quarter, on third-and-20, Brady connected with Evans — who was working against Casey Hayward Jr. — on a 48-yard pass along the right sideline, setting up a 9-yard touchdown pass to rookie running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn to make it 35-31 Bucs.
“I think we knew that it was all out there for the taking. We had a lot of opportunities that we just didn’t capitalize on, just penalties that were setting us back,” Miller said. “The coaches did a good job of making adjustments of what they were giving us; they were giving us a little more Cover 2 than we thought they were, so we made the proper adjustments, and the coaches put us in a great position to make plays and we made ’em. So it was a good second half for us.”
A 26-yard field goal extended the Bucs’ lead to 38-31 with 2:44 to go, before cornerback Carlton Davis picked off Herbert on an overthrown ball to seal the win and run out the clock.
Davis said Brady’s play inspired the Bucs on defense. After giving up 24 points in the first half, they allowed just seven in the second.
“He’s the GOAT. That’s as simple as I can put it. He’s the GOAT — Tom Brady. He’s a great player, even better to play off of him,” Davis said. “Having him go down and score touchdowns gives us a lot more energy on our sidelines and just gives the whole sideline more confidence in the comeback we had today.”
Brady became the oldest player in NFL history to record five passing touchdowns in a game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The record was previously held by Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who accomplished that feat at the age of 40 years, 342 days.
“We just had to get our heads out of our butts and make some plays and be aggressive, play that defense we’ve been playing the previous three games,” Davis said. “That’s what we did, man. Any given Sunday, all kinds of obstacles are gonna occur, and it’s all about how you battle back. I think we did a good job of battling back today.”
A complete game still eludes Brady’s Bucs. The defense struggled against a rookie QB — albeit a very good one — and a Chargers squad decimated by injuries.
“[We’ve] just gotta tighten some things up,” Brady said. “Glad we came back. Defense made a big play for us before the end of the half, and that got us ignited a little bit. And then we made some plays in the third quarter, made some good plays in the fourth quarter. We started the game well, we finished the game well — that middle part — we gotta figure out how to play 60 minutes well.”
The Bucs’ injuries started to pile up too. Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette did not play due to hamstring and ankle injuries. Evans left the contest to have his ankle X-rayed but returned. LeSean McCoy exited with an ankle injury.
Kick returner Kenjon Barner also left with a concussion. And Tampa lost Howard in the fourth quarter with an Achilles injury, and Arians believes he is likely done for the season, which hurts the Bucs on a short week. They play Thursday night at the Chicago Bears.
“Injuries are taking their toll like every team in the NFL right now,” Arians said. “It’s the next man up, so we’re going to have to get on a short week, get ready for a hell of a football team in Chicago and travel up there with what we’ve got left. I don’t think Chris will be ready. I think Leonard has a chance, but obviously losing O.J. was huge.”