Though linebacker Barrett Ruud was quick to quip that New England without Tom Brady is a "pretty big minus," the Patriots still offered a significant test to the Bucs defense.
Several of the Patriots' primary playmakers - including receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and running back Laurence Maroney - played deep into the first half.
It didn't matter as, for the second straight week, the Bucs delivered a strong defensive performance.
One week after holding the Dolphins to two field goals, the Bucs kept the Patriots in check in their 27-10 victory; the defending AFC champions mustered 174 total yards (including just 2.5 yards per carry), with their lone touchdown coming in mop-up time in the fourth.
But what the Bucs were most happy with was that they followed through on some of their biggest offseason talking points for improvement - scoring on turnovers and stopping teams on third down. Tampa Bay racked up three turnovers (returning a fumble for a touchdown) and held the Patriots to 3-of-11 third downs; though the Bucs were the NFL's second-ranked defense a year ago, they were 12th on third down (allowing 41 percent).
"It went pretty well," Ruud said. "We got a couple of turnovers, a couple three-and-outs. They had one little drive on us, but other than that, it was good."
Ruud was a big reason why. He forced a fumble by Kevin Faulk in the second quarter, which Jimmy Wilkerson recovered on Tampa Bay's 25-yard line. Ruud had nearly pulled off a spectacular interception during the Patriots' first drive, snatching Matt Cassel's pass with his right hand while trying to pull it into his body as he fell to the ground (after New England challenged, the play was reversed).
"I knew I didn't have it, but I figured I'd test my skills out," Ruud said.
The Bucs' second-team defense also stepped up. Early in the third quarter, safety Sabby Piscitelli got into the backfield quickly on a blitz, picked up a botched shotgun snap and raced 24 yards for a touchdown.
"It was definitely a Christmas gift," Piscitelli said. "It was just being in the right place at the right time."
Cornerback Elbert Mack also came through, intercepting Kevin O'Connell's first pass attempt in the third quarter and returning it 5 yards to the Patriots 29, leading to Matt Bryant's 23-yard field goal.
"Our first (team) defense was tremendous; they got them off the field right away and didn't allow anything," Piscitelli said. "And I think our second defense went in there and carried over the momentum."