TAMPA — If quarterback Josh Freeman wasn't the best excuse for 36,008 fans to pass through the turnstiles Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, he's certainly the reason some wished they hadn't left early.
Unable to muster much offense against the Rams in a flag-filled game, Freeman saved his best for last again.
The second-year pro kept cool in the clutch, culminating a 16-play, 81-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to running back Cadillac Williams with no timeouts and 10 seconds remaining for an 18-17 win.
By overcoming a 17-3 deficit, the Bucs improved to 4-2, a half-game behind the Falcons in the NFC South and tied with the Giants and Seahawks for the NFC's second-best record.
It was Freeman's fifth fourth-quarter comeback and third this season.
"You don't see a lot of that; not out of young quarterbacks," Bucs corner Ronde Barber said.
"You can name a few guys across the league with a lot more tenure that do this regularly. But for him? It's amazing. It's fun to watch him, and you feel like you have a chance to win every game."
Trying to rebound from a 25-point loss to the Saints a week earlier, the Bucs dug a deep hole. In all, they were penalized 12 times for 92 yards. Nine were aimed at the offense, costing 67 yards and negating 85 yards of gains.
Down 17-6 at halftime, coach Raheem Morris told his team it was the worst two quarters he had seen it play and it was lucky it had 30 minutes to change it.
"The way we were playing, it was just ridiculous," linebacker Barrett Ruud said.
The Bucs allowed Steven Jackson to rush for 74 of his game-high 110 yards in the first half and rookie Sam Bradford to throw two short touchdown passes.
But the defense stiffened in the second half while the offense chipped away at the lead with two of Connor Barth's four field goals, including a 53-yarder.
Before Freeman left the sideline down 17-12 with 4:45 left, he got some last-minute instructions from Morris.
"I told him to go do what I brought you here to do," Morris said. "He absolutely wants to be put in those positions. He's got a blade in his back pocket that he likes to pull out, and he pulls it out nicely in the fourth quarter."
When Freeman entered the huddle, he did not mince words.
"The first play, he comes right in the huddle and says, 'We're about to win this game,' " receiver Mike Williams said. " 'We've got 81 yards to go. We're going to win this game.' "
Confidence aside, Freeman had help. He went 10-of-14 for 78 yards and ran once for 8. The Bucs converted two third downs, overcame a 15-yard personal foul on tackle James Lee and converted a fourth and 3 from the Rams 30 on tight end Kellen Winslow's 9-yard catch.
Freeman missed on shots to Mike Williams and Winslow in the end zone. Then Williams ran a short hitch. And rather than going out of bounds after catching the pass, he spun inside for 20 yards to the 1.
The Bucs were forced to take their last timeout, and after missing Mike Williams on a slant in the end zone on first down, Freeman's primary receiver on second down was Sammie Stroughter.
They brought an all-out blitz," Freeman said. "The hot throw was Cadillac or Stroughter. They were sitting hard inside leverage on Sammie (who has) a little pivot route. I was talking to Cadillac, I was like, 'Hey man, if they blitz us, it's you. It's all you. Make something happen.'
"Sure enough, they blitz us. ... (Micheal) Spurlock ran at the guy who initially was taking away (Cadillac). He dropped back on Spurlock. (Cadillac) came underneath, and I put it on him."
Freeman struggles to explain his penchant for fourth-quarter rallies. Through three quarters, he was 12-of-24 for 125 yards and a 65.5 rating. In the fourth, he was 11-of-16 for 87 yards, a touchdown and 102.7 rating.
"We've just been able to find a way to get it done," Freeman said. "I think it's really a … mentality thing. When the game is on the line, we have a lot of stand-up guys that are ready to make a play.
"I remember my coach in college always telling me, 'Play as well as you can for 3½ quarters and when it comes down to it, you've got to step up and be the hero.' I want to play well enough to win the whole game. But if it comes down to it and you've got to make a play, I think we have the guys around me, skill position guys, to make those plays."
Morris was effusive in his praise for Freeman, so much so he might have lost track of where his team is in the standings.
"We're 4-2," he said. "We're the best team in the NFC. Yeah, I said it. We're excited."