The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense looked the best it had all season in the first half Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
After weeks of struggling, things seemed to come easy for Tom Brady as the Bucs opened a 14-point halftime lead. Through two quarters, Tampa generated 16 first downs, 261 total yards, and averaged 6.53 yards per play on 40 snaps, including 194 passing yards.
Then the second half started.
Brady became a turnover machine, and the Bucs couldn't get out of their own way. Tampa turned it over on five straight possessions to get down 34-17 before a garbage time score closed the game at 34-23.
Tampa opened the second half with an ill-advised fake punt deep in its own territory. Then Brady turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions -- INT, fumble, fumble, INT. The Bengals turned each miscue into points, flipping a 17-point deficit into a coasting victory.
The Bengals generated little pressure in the first half. Trey Hendrickson missed the game, and Sam Hubbard exited after 26 plays due to a calf injury. Missing his top two edge rushers, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo called a host of stunts to generate pressure in Brady's face. It worked with aplomb as Cincy smothered the Bucs in the second half.
Including a 75-yard garbage-time TD, Tampa managed just 135 yards in the final two quarters.
Earlier in the week on his SiriusXM "Let's Go!" podcast, Brady had called Cincy a "fairly tough" defense. While the comments didn't seem like a diss and weren't played up nationally, Bengals defenders clearly took them as a slight entering the contest.
"Hearing that from an old, savvy vet from him, we're a 'fairly tough defense,' with four turnovers, what would you say -- tough as nails?" Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt added.
The Bengals know they didn't play well in the first half but turned it around despite missing several key players up front.
"That's how we played in the first half, I'm not going to lie to you," Hill said. "But we just came out in the second half and played our tails off."
That effort allowed Cincy to leapfrog the Baltimore Ravens for the top spot in the AFC North with three games to play.