TAMPA — The Bucs sure needed this one.
After losing two in a row, falling to 3-5 on the season and playing a team that, frankly, isn't any good, the Bucs could not afford to lose Sunday. And they didn't.
Tampa Bay played solid on both sides of the ball and beat down the Bears, 36-10, to stop its skid and keep in the vicinity of first-place Falcons (6-4) in the NFC South.
Here are a few random thoughts following the conclusion of Sunday's game.
• How about some sweet revenge for Chris Conte? The former Bears safety, who has been the target of much criticism from Bucs fans in recent weeks, turned in the defensive play of the day in the first quarter when he picked off a Jay Cutler pass and returned it untouched for a 20-yard touchdown. Not to say that the Bucs defensive issues were suddenly solved or that Conte's season is now a success. But it was a much-needed good play for a player and a defense that has taken its fair share of finger-pointing this season.
• Then again, there was some bad news for Conte and the Bucs when the Bears scored on a Hail Mary to end the first half. With less than a half-minute left in the second quarter, the Bears moved the ball to midfield and then scored when Cutler threw a cloud-scraping pass into the end zone. Conte had a chance to knock it down, but seemed to whiff on his attempt. A quick deflection later and the ball seemingly stuck in the arms of Bears wide receiver Cameron Meredith. Call it a Hail Meredith.
• The Bears' Hail Mary could have been a real gut-punch for the Bucs. Tampa Bay had four takeaways in the first half and yet only had a 17-3 lead. It felt like it should have been more. Then, after the Hail Mary, the lead was only 17-10. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said that play couldn't define the Bucs, that they couldn't let that beat them in the second half. It didn't. Tampa Bay came out strong to start the second half. Quarterback Jameis Winston turned into Fran Tarkenton, running around, avoiding Bears all over the backfield and ended up completing a long pass to Mike Evans. Play of the game right there. Then he hit receiver Freddie Martino for a 43-yard touchdown to give Tampa Bay a 24-10 lead. It was a great response to what happened to end the first half.
• Speaking of Winston, a strong day for the Bucs QB. One of his better performances of the season.
• Well, hello there, Doug Martin. After missing the past six games, the Bucs running back was back, although he looked like a back that hadn't played in six games. In fact, he looked a little tentative at times. Nevertheless, an important piece of the Bucs offense is back. And, oh, he did score the touchdown on a 1-yard run that put Tampa Bay up 36-10 in the fourth quarter.
• Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is awful. Can I just say that? He's a turnover machine. To be fair, I don't follow the Bears so closely to tell you how much of Chicago's problems are his fault and what kind of talent he currently has around him. But I do know that I've watched this guy for years now and have never thought he was any good. During Sunday's first half, he turned the ball over three times with two awful throws, including a pick-six, and two sack-fumbles in which he showed the pocket presence of a high-schooler.
• Sad moment in the second quarter when veteran Bears guard Kyle Long was caught up in the wash on a running play and had his ankle grotesquely rolled. He needed a cart to get off the field, but in an impressive display of respect, players from both teams came onto the field to wish him well. Among the Bucs players to show extra compassion for Long were Gerald McCoy and former Bear Chris Conte.
• What a huge day for Bucs tight end Cameron Brate, who caught six passes for 70 yards in the first half alone. And THAT already made it a career-best day. You know, Brate is just what a young quarterback needs. He's a dependable ball-catcher who runs simple routes that allow a QB like Winston to make simple easy throws. When you have a young QB who occasionally struggles with accuracy — as Winston often does — Brate is the perfect go-to target to get the ball moving and build some confidence.
• Boy, if you're the Bears, these are dark days. I mean, you just got your hat handed to you. By the Bucs! The only reason this game was somewhat competitive for a while was because you completed a Hail Mary to end the first half. Hey, don't feel bad, Bears fans. At least you have the Cubs.