TAMPA — Josh Freeman pumped his fist in the air as he jogged off the field toward the tunnel in the south end zone Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Fans leaned over the railing and responded by holding five fingers in the air, which was more than a nod to the young quarterback's uniform number.
Freeman ripped the glove off his left hand and tossed it into the stands. Then he flung his hat and both sweatbands into the stands.
Spreading the wealth is something that comes naturally to Freeman, 22, who passed for 237 yards and tied a club record with five touchdowns in a 38-15 win over the Seahawks.
Rookie Mike Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow each had a pair of touchdown catches for the Bucs, who secured a winning record a year after going 3-13 in the first season under coach Raheem Morris.
In fact, Freeman completed passes to 10 different receivers, including relative newbies Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe.
But here's the reason for the biggest high five for No. 5: Heading into the final regular-season game at New Orleans, Freeman has the Bucs in a race with the Saints, Packers and Giants for one of the two wild-card berths.
Under any scenario, Tampa Bay will have to beat the Saints. If New Orleans loses at Atlanta tonight, the Bucs will need either the Packers to lose to Chicago at Lambeau Field or the Giants to lose at Washington. If the Saints prevail tonight, both the Packers and Giants would have to lose for the Bucs to reach the postseason.
With five injured starters missing from the Bucs defense, Morris kept his promise to put the franchise's fate in the hands of his 22-year-old quarterback.
"That was my thought process, if you couldn't tell," Morris said. "Go let (No.) 5 win the game. Go let 5 play defense. Go let 5 play offense. Go let 5 dictate special teams.
"I knew he was a good quarterback. I didn't know how fast he would become great. He's on his way. I think he'll be in the arguments and MVP chatter soon. That's what we all want from the kid. I'm not saying he's in those chatters now. I'm just saying that's what we want from him because he's that type of player and he's that special. This town has never seen that before, and hopefully, he can give it to them."
Freeman certainly had some help. Rookie LeGarrette Blount bulldozed his way to his fourth 100-yard rushing game, finishing with 164 yards on 18 carries, including hurdling over Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy on a 48-yard run.
The Bucs started slowly, gaining only 9 yards on three possessions in the first quarter and trailing 7-3. But then Freeman ducked into a phone booth and emerged as the hero, finishing 21-of-26 with a career-best passer rating of 144.2.
His five touchdown passes, which came before he left the game midway through the fourth quarter, tied the club record shared by Steve DeBerg and Brad Johnson, the latter of who was in attendance.
On the season, Freeman has 23 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
That kind of performance is why Morris told his defense their job was to get off the field and out of Freeman's way. The Bucs caught a break when Seahawks starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck injured his hip on a 1-yard touchdown run and left the game.
"We know how we have to win, and we've got to win on the sideline, when we're not playing," Morris said. "That's the way we've got to win on defense. Get off the grass on third down. Get off the grass when you have an opportunity to get a turnover, and get off the grass at all costs and let 5 win the game for us."
Freeman did just that. He was sacked twice on the Bucs' first three series but later kept plays alive with his feet, throwing his first touchdown on a dead run to his right to Winslow. He also stood tall in the pocket, taking a hit while delivering a touchdown strike to Williams.
"His numbers will speak for themselves," cornerback Ronde Barber said of Freeman. "He's a special player. We've never seen a guy like that around here.
"You, obviously, appreciate what LeGarrette is doing in the running game and how well some of our young offensive linemen are playing. But this team goes how that dude (Freeman) plays. There's no doubt about it. He's without question our MVP, and we all know that. You all know that. So when he plays like the way he played (Sunday), it's hard to beat us."
Freeman's performance came during weather conditions that weren't conducive to throwing a football. The temperature at game time was 49 degrees and falling with winds out of the northwest at 16 mph.
"If you were out there in that weather, you're not thinking you're going to be throwing a lot of balls," receiver Micheal Spurlock said. "And he made it look easy. I think he might have missed one early on, and he was money from then on. I just congratulate the guy."
Freeman took his record-setting performance in stride.
"It's not that big of a deal right now," he said. "I'm sure when I look back and I walk away from the game, that will be something that I'll say, 'That was pretty cool.' I hope I can go out there and have another game like that, maybe throw six. But right now, it helped us win the game throwing touchdown passes. And right now I just hope I can have another solid performance next week."
Two wild cards are left in the deck, and the Bucs have the Five of Hearts.
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.
Tied for the best I
With his two touchdown catches, Mike Williams matched the Bucs overall record (though he is seven behind the NFL rookie record Randy Moss set in 1998):
Player Year No.
Joey Galloway 2005 10
Mike Williams 2010 10
Mark Carrier 1989 9
Bruce Hill 1988 9
Kevin House 1981 9
Keenan McCardell 2003 8
Keyshawn Johnson2000 8
Jimmie Giles 1985 8
Tied for the best II
Josh Freeman matched a Bucs record for touchdown passes in a game:
Player No. TDs (in yards) Date Opponent Result
Josh Freeman 5 10, 20,21, 7, 2 Sunday Seahawks 38-15 W
Brad Johnson 5 15, 2, 2, 19, 5 Nov. 3, 2002 Vikings38-24 W
Steve DeBerg 5 11, 6, 11, 3, 2 Sept. 13, 1987 Falcons 48-10 W