TAMPA, FLORIDA // Josh Freeman and LeGarrette Blount reversed roles last night against Indianapolis.
Freeman picked up the tough yards, and Blount had the highlight play. Together, they helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win their third consecutive game. Freeman threw for 287 yards and a touchdown, Blount ran for 127 yards and a score, and the Buccaneers beat the Colts 24-17 in prime time.
The quarterback, who ran for a touchdown early in the game, scrambled for a huge first down on the winning drive. Two plays later, Blount found a gaping hole, bounced to the outside and scampered 35 yards for a touchdown. He carried David Caldwell, the defensive back, the final few yards before diving for the end zone.
Freeman was not done with the dirty work, though. Needing a yard to move the chains, extend the drive and deny the Colts a chance to tie the game, Freeman picked up the first down on a fourth-and-1.
"It really wasn't pretty the whole time, but that's us," Freeman said.
The Buccaneers (3-1) kept pace with New Orleans in the NFC South. The Colts fell to 0-4 for the first time since 1998, Peyton Manning's rookie season. Manning has watched all four losses, unable to play because of a neck injury.
Curtis Painter started this one, filling in for Kerry Collins, the injured the backup who was out because of a concussion, and played better than most expected.
"It's always a little easier when you know you're going to get some playing time," Painter said. "We got off to a good start and put some points on the board. But obviously we have to find a way to put more points on the board and move the ball a little bit better."
Painter completed 13 of 30 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns, both long ones to Pierre Garcon. He was not nearly as effective down the stretch, partly because the Colts lost starting offensive linemen Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana to injuries. Guard Ryan Diem was inactive.
"I think you have to deal with injuries in this business," Jim Caldwell, the Colts coach, said. "They happen. You just have to find a way to overcome it. That's what we talk about - the next man up. Somebody has got to fill in and be ready to play."
Nonetheless, losing three guys at the same position is tough for any team to overcome.
"It's one of those things where we have to move some things around and make some adjustments," Caldwell said. "It's not a good situation, but nevertheless one that you have to work through."
Painter and Garcon were the lone bright spots for the Colts.
Garcon turned a short sideline route into an 87-yard score in the second quarter, then took a screen pass and wove his way through defenders for a 59-yarder in the third.
Those were the team's longest plays of the season. The 87-yarder was the fifth-longest pass play in team history and longer than anything Manning has thrown in his NFL career.
The Colts were up 17-10 after Garcon's second score, but it was all Tampa Bay in the final 20-plus minutes.
"It's always good to win on a national stage," Raheem Morris, the Bucs coach, said. "Everybody wants to have a better performance, but it's hard to apologise for wins, so we're excited about them all. They're hard enough to get, so you might as well enjoy every single one you do."
Freeman was 25 of 39 passing, buying time in the pocket and picking apart Indy's zone defence. He got the Bucs on the scoreboard with a one-yard plunge in the second quarter and tied the game at 10-10 with a 13-yard pass to Preston Parker late in the third.
Blount put them ahead for good with his longest run of the season. Freeman kept them there with his fourth-down plunge into the line.
Tampa Bay's biggest problem of the game — aside from giving up the two long TD passes — was penalties. The Buccaneers were flagged 14 times for 106 yards.
None of those was as costly as Dwight Freeney's penalty. Indianapolis' star pass-rusher was flagged for being offside on a third-and-19 play. The Buccaneers converted on the ensuing play, setting up Connor Barth's 46-yard field goal that tied the game at 10-10.
Indy went back in front on Garcon's second score. He eluded several defenders while snaking through the field, and may have been aided by a block in the back. There were no flags, though.
Garcon's first one was nearly as good. He turned up the sideline and outran everyone to the end zone, giving the Colts a 10-0 lead.
Freeman responded by driving the Bucs down the field, then sneaked the ball across the goal-line. Tampa Bay had a chance to tie the game or take the lead just before half time, but Robert Mathis sacked Freeman on third down and the Bucs had to scramble to get the field goal unit lined up.
They did, and Barth's kick was good from 37 yards. But the Bucs had too many men on the field, so they went to the locker room trailing.
It didn't matter, not against the struggling Colts.
"I think we're close," Painter said. "We're just scratching for win here. Everybody is playing hard. That's one thing about our team. We're not going to quit. We're going to continue to battle and hopefully get over the hump."