Bucs fans gave Aqib Talib a warm welcome when the Broncos landed in Tampa.
On Sunday, Jameis Winston provided the gifts.
Talib, playing at Raymond James Stadium for the first time since Tampa Bay traded him in November 2012, intercepted two of Winston's passes in the Broncos' 27-7 dismantling of the Bucs.
"To put on a show like that in front of the fans I still have in Tampa, it was special," said the cornerback, who has intercepted more passes than any other active player since Tampa Bay drafted him in the first round of the 2008 draft.
Technically, the box score shows that the defending Super Bowl champions beat the Bucs. But really, the Bucs beat the Bucs.
To pull off the upset, Tampa Bay, at a minimum, needed to avoid self-inflicted wounds. And it did. For two snaps.
On the third, Winston threw a pass just slightly ahead of Adam Humphries as Humphries crossed over the middle of the field. Talib, who was covering Vincent Jackson, read the play, intercepted the pass and was one Joe Hawley tackle away from a touchdown. It's a bad day when you need your center to make a tackle.
The Broncos reached the end zone five seconds later. The Bucs came back to tie the score at 7, but they couldn't recover from Winston's second interception, a throw he forced into coverage. On the third-and-10 play early in the second quarter, the numbers did not work in his favor. Denver deployed a four-man rush and dropped seven defenders into zone coverage.
Winston initially looked to the left side, but because the Broncos had four defenders covering two receivers, he looked to Mike Evans on the right. Evans, however, wasn't open either, as Talib, with safety help deep, lurked in coverage underneath. Winston tried to thread the needle anyway.
Knowing that Winston throws into tight spaces, Talib was ready and undercut Evans' curl route.
"We watched the tape," he said. "We saw how confident he was in his arm, so we knew we'd have five to six opportunities today to get our hands on the football. I think we capitalized on three of them, so we'll take that."
After the pick, he blew kisses to fans sitting behind the Broncos' sideline.
Against most other teams, an interception like that puts a game in jeopardy. Against Denver, it's lethal.
One minute later, the Broncos, aided by back-to-back defensive pass interference penalties, capitalized on the short field and scored the go-ahead touchdown. The Bucs' chances of winning disintegrated, falling from 44 percent at the beginning of their drive to 20 percent after the score.
Charles Sims' lateral-fumble later in the quarter was merely a punctuation mark, a lowlight for you to recall one day when you're describing the dumbfounding ways in which the Bucs used to lose football games. The second interception — that was the stake to the heart.
Winston had another option: He could have checked down to Sims. That might not have resulted in a first down, but it wouldn't have resulted in his 10th turnover of the season (only one other player, Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, has turned the ball over as often).
As coach Dirk Koetter noted after the game, not every play has to be a big play. Instead of pressing, live to fight another series. The Broncos are good enough as it is, but give them extra possessions and they become nearly unbeatable. This is, after all, a team that won Super Bowl 50 despite Peyton Manning's historically awful performance.
The Bucs not only failed to take care of the ball but also struggled to produce on early downs, particularly first. Denver came into the game allowing 3.9 yards — the second-lowest mark in the NFL — and was even stingier Sunday, holding Tampa Bay to just 3.3 yards.
The Bucs had 20 snaps on second and 9 or more, by far the most they've had this season. They had eight snaps against the Falcons, 13 against the Cardinals and 12 against the Rams.
While Winston's interceptions came on third down, the Bucs' early-down struggles set them in motion. As the game wore on, Tampa Bay became more and more one-dimensional and could hold off Denver's rush for only so long. The Broncos' unrelenting defense hit Winston 16 times and recorded five sacks.
In the end, the Bucs fans who welcomed Talib back didn't stick around to say goodbye.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.
Winston is just the latest
How quarterbacks have fared against the Broncos this season
|Week||Quarterback, team||Comp. %||Yards||Yards/att||TD||INT||Sacks||Rating||QBR|
|1||Cam Newton, Carolina||54.5%||194||5.9||1||1||3||69.5||59.0|
|2||Andrew Luck, Indianapolis||52.5%||197||4.9||1||1||5||64.3||67.3|
|3||Andy Dalton, Cincinnati||67.7%||206||6.6||0||1||4||72.8||64.8|
|4||Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay||48.6%||179||5.1||0||2||5||40.1||42.6|