TAMPA — As the Bucs faced a double-digit deficit in the second half Sunday, quarterback Josh Freeman provided a calming influence with a prediction from his puffed-up lips.
Freeman's mouth was bloodied from a hit by Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, but he let coach Raheem Morris know the team was down, but not out, before pulling out a 24-20 victory.
"He looked me right in the face, 'We got this; we're okay,' " Morris said. "I'm looking at my quarterback's mouth bleeding; it's kind of a situation you don't want to look at too often. He got things rolling for us and able to come back in the fourth quarter. It's becoming a signature move for him."
Freeman has eight comeback wins in three seasons, which has the Bucs (1-1) feeling good heading to Sunday's showdown with NFC South rival Atlanta (1-1) at Raymond James Stadium. Considering Morris felt his team "blinked" in a Week 1 loss to Detroit, saying even Freeman was "rattled," the Bucs were the complete opposite in Minneapolis, with the third-year quarterback setting the tone.
"He's very poised at any moment — he doesn't really fear any situation," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "A quarterback like that, a leader like that, you've got to feel that vibe off him where you can't really be scared of any situation, just like him. … It's what great leadership does. He's such a great leader, when he's in a moment where everybody else is frightful, he's just like, 'This is my time to shine.' That's what makes him so good."
But as good as the Bucs — and, specifically, Freeman — have been at battling back (like from a 17-0 deficit Sunday), Morris said he'd rather have his team start a little faster.
"We don't have to win every game like that," Morris said. "Let's go win some games in a more convincing fashion, just for the head coach's health. But other than that, it's fun."
Freeman's fourth-quarter heroics have been so common, it's almost expected.
"It happened for me last year, every game we played, it was the fourth quarter, and if we were down, we were up, whatever the case may be, for me personally in my head I'm thinking, 'All right, when is Josh going to do it again? Here he goes,' " Morris said. "And the times he didn't do it, I was shocked, the two Atlanta games last year. For our football team, I think it's a great belief when you got that kind of confidence in your quarterback to be able to go out and win those types of games."
Morris said a good example was that when Freeman threw an interception after a successful onside kick, the team's confidence wasn't shaken.
"They ran from the sideline and felt like they had more energy, more life and that they knew they (had) another opportunity, because of him, because of guys around him like (offensive lineman) Donald Penn," Morris said. "They were, 'Okay, there's no sense of panic, no false sense of urgency; there was no deflate in the balloon.' "
Still, the Bucs don't want to rely on Captain Comeback for each win, with Morris saying putting more emphasis on early execution in games, "play faster, play smarter, play wiser."
After all, Freeman & Co. couldn't complete fourth-quarter magic against the Falcons last season, losing both games by a combined 10 points. Atlanta, which added first-round pick receiver Julio Jones to an already potent offense, comes off a big win over the Eagles.
"It'll be a physical game," Morris said. "They don't like us; we don't like them. It's always nice to play the Birds at our house."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.