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Bucs-Dolphins: How Ryan Fitzpatrick steadied Tampa Bay

Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) throws during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Nov. 20, 2017

MIAMI GARDENS — For chaos, there was Jameis Winston missing his second game with a shoulder injury and an NFL investigation swirling around him.

For calamity, there was the Bucs forcing four of their five turnovers in the first half and building a two score lead that proved to be as sturdy as beach sand.

For calm?

"You called me grandpa?" veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said in the locker room to tackle Demar Dotson. "I'll take that. I like being a grandpa."

With the game tied, the 34-year-old Fitzpatrick led the Bucs on a clutch drive to set up the decisive 35-yard field goal by Patrick Murray with four seconds left in a 30-20 win Sunday over the Dolphins.

Adarius Glanton recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff, but the issue had been settled.

The second straight victory improved the Bucs to 4-6 and steadied a franchise rocked by news Friday the NFL is investigating a female Uber driver's allegation that Winston groped her during a ride in March 2016.

Winston has denied the accusation. Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby said Sunday he was with his former Florida State teammate in the backseat that night and no incident occurred.

Even so, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter didn't know how much of a distraction Winston's injury and investigation has become.

"Impossible to measure," Koetter said. "I don't really know about that. I don't hear much talk about that, but I'm not sure."

What wasn't hard to measure was how much the experience of Fitzpatrick and the exuberance of rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin meant Sunday.

Howard made all three of his receptions for 52 yards and a touchdown in the first half and had another 25-yard TD catch called back due to a holding penalty. He helped the Bucs build a 20-7 lead that they gave back in the second half.

In the final drive, it was Godwin who was clutch with catches of 14- and 24 yards to set up Murray's field goal.

"The biggest play of the game was probably the throw to Godwin," Fitzpatrick said of the 24-yarder. "It wasn't necessarily to our first, second, third target but I have supreme confidence he's going to make that play and he knows that he's going to get that ball."

The Bucs tried to give this game away.

In addition to forcing Dolphins starting quarterback Jay Cutler into throwing three interceptions, the defense recovered a fumble and benefitted from Miami's 17 penalties for 123 yards.

But after Cutler left the game at halftime with a concussion, backup Matt Moore carved up the Bucs defense 282 yards passing. His 61-yard TD pass to Kenny Stills, whose 180 receiving yards is the third most ever allowed by Tampa Bay, tied the game at 20 with three minutes remaining.

"Games are going to have those ebbs and flows, even before we kicked the field goal, when it was 20-20, standing in that huddle, it was a good feeling," Fitzpatrick said. "I think everybody knew we were going go get it done and we followed it up, so that was nice."

Fitzpatrick played better than in his Bucs' debut last week against the Jets, completing 22 of 37 passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

"He's done a good job. I mean, heck, he's 2-0 as a starter," Koetter said. "The first half, we did a lot of good things, a few negative things. But Ryan, in the midst of some turmoil, has been a calm professional leader."

Winston's shoulder injury is scheduled to be re-evaluated Monday. It's possible he could start Sunday at Atlanta. But general manager Jason Licht said Nov. 12 that his absence could be extended as a precaution.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder if Fitzpatrick's success and Winston's serious off-field issues would make the Bucs' want to ride the hot hand.

"Fitzy played with Joe Montana and Dan Marino and John Elway," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy joked. "He played with all the legends. Fitzy has been around awhile so he's got a lot of experience. He uses it. Very smart. Calm."

The Bucs could use a little more of that right now.

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbucs@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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