CLEVELAND — One play can change the fortunes of a game or a season. That’s what it came down to for the Bucs against the Browns on Sunday.
The Bucs were in position to limp away with their third straight win, this one as ugly as the bruised sky in Cleveland.
They were clinging to a seven-point lead, and the Browns were down to their last breath, facing fourth and 10 at the Bucs 12-yard line with half a minute remaining in the game.
That’s when Browns tight end David Njoku made a spectacular one-handed catch of a pass from Jacoby Brissett in the back of the end zone with linebacker Devin White draped all over him to help send the game to overtime.
The Browns won 23-17 on running back Nick Chubb’s 3-yard touchdown run with 19 seconds left in the extra period.
In between, there was egregious clock mismanagement by Bucs coach Todd Bowles, who stuffed two timeouts in his pocket in regulation though the Bucs needed one play to get into field-goal range. There was horrendous kick coverage, bad offensive line play and penalties that killed drives.
Worst of all, there was a potentially significant leg injury suffered in overtime by All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs, who had to be carted off the field. X-rays were negative, but the extent of the injury won’t be known until he has further tests today.
As White dressed slowly after the game, he kept replaying the tying touchdown catch in his mind.
“It’s tough, man,” White said. “I played coverage on (Njoku) all night, and I think I did a great job. But on that play, I knew he had to get to the touchdown, so I tried to stay low, stay under him. But the guy is 6-5. (Brissett) threw it where only (Njoku) could catch it.
“He made a great catch. At the end of the day, I still tried to fight and claw the ball out on the way down, but he made a hell of a play. I wish I could have that one back.”
It was one of the few plays White didn’t make. He finished with 13 tackles, a half-sack, a quarterback hit and a pass defensed.
After the Browns drove for a touchdown on their opening possession — something they’ve done six times this season — the Bucs defense allowed only a field goal until Njoku’s catch with 32 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Browns took over at the Bucs 46 with 2:10 to play. Tampa Bay had all three timeouts and the two-minute warning.
A 28-yard run by Chubb, who finished with 116 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, moved the Browns to the Bucs 12 with 1:53 remaining.
It seemed logical the Browns might tie the score right there, but the Bucs have quarterback Tom Brady, with his 43 career fourth-quarter comebacks and 55 winning drives. Nevertheless, Bowles was content to let the clock wind down.
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When Tampa Bay got the ball back and Brady connected with receiver Julio Jones for 26 yards to the Cleveland 48, only 8 seconds remained. The Bucs took their first timeout. Two plays later, Brady could try only a Hail Mary pass, which fell incomplete.
Bowles said he didn’t consider calling a timeout when the Browns had the ball near the goal line late in regulation.
“That clock was going to run down,” he said. “We didn’t have enough to stop it right there, so, it was overtime right there right off the top. Once we couldn’t get the other play — Julio made a great play, then we couldn’t get there — it was going to overtime.”
In snapping a two-game winning streak, the Bucs fell to 5-6 but maintained a tenuous hold on first place in the NFC South with the Falcons (5-7) losing 19-13 to the Commanders.
The Bucs did some good things on offense. Playing without injured running back Leonard Fournette, they rushed for 96 yards. Rookie Rachaad White picked up 64 on 14 carries, but 35 of them came the second time he touched the ball.
Brady connected on 20 of his first 23 passes and finished with 246 yards passing, including touchdowns to receiver Chris Godwin and rookie tight end Ko Kieft.
But the Bucs converted only 4 of 15 third downs and were 0-for-8 on third and 7 or longer.
“Early on, it felt like we could do whatever we wanted,” receiver Mike Evans said. “Like, run the ball, play-action pass, quick game, it felt like we could do whatever. It’s just football. I mean, guys are wide open and the ball gets tipped at the line. Just little things like that. It’s tough.”
With about seven minutes remaining in regulation, the Bucs faced fourth and 3 at the Cleveland 48. Rather than go for a first down or attempt a 55-yard field goal, Tampa Bay punted and pinned the Browns at their 5.
In the end, it was a 45-yard catch and run by Browns receiver Amari Cooper that set up Chubb’s touchdown run in overtime. Cornerback Carlton Davis slipped on the play and tried to hold Cooper, but to no avail.
“Seventeen points is not going to do it, and that’s basically what we have been doing all year,” Brady said. “It’s the same thing. Had a chance. … We just did not make the plays, and they did.”
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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