Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals never blinked.
Down 17 points early in the young quarterback’s first start against Tom Brady, the surging Bengals took advantage of uncharacteristic mistakes by the seven-time Super Bowl winner to shrug off a slow start and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-23 for their sixth straight victory Sunday.
“When we get in these situations we never panic, we know somebody’s going to make a play,” Burrow said after throwing for four touchdowns in the second half to rally the defending AFC champions from a 17-3 halftime deficit.
“The last four weeks have all been tough wins, playing some really good teams and some really good defenses,” the third-year pro added. “We’ve risen to the challenge just about every week. We continue to play well in big spots and guys are making plays in big spots. That’s exciting to see.”
Cincinnati (10-4) retained sole possession of first place in the AFC North, with Tre Flowers intercepting Brady to set up one touchdown and Logan Wilson sacking the 45-year-old quarterback to force a fumble that led to another TD.
“Just unforced errors. Two fumbles, two interceptions. You can’t win a game like that,” said Brady, who’s been intercepted four times in the past two weeks after only throwing three picks in the first 12 games of the season.
The first-place Bucs (6-8) lost for the third time in four games and wasted an opportunity to take a two-game lead in the NFC South over Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans, who at 5-9 remain in contention for the division title despite being assured of finishing with losing records.
“Same old song. Bucs vs. Bucs. Play a good first half. Second half we come out and we shoot ourselves in the foot either by turnovers or penalties and (poor) field possession on special teams,” Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles said. “The tale of two halves, and the half we played in the second half was Bucs vs. Bucs.”
Burrow began Cincinnati’s comeback from a 17-0 deficit with a field goal drive in the final 1:39 of the opening half. He threw scoring passes of 5 yards to Tee Higgins, 3 yards to Tyler Boyd, 8 yards to Ja’Marr Chase and 12 yards to Mitchell Wilcox.
Burrow finished 27 of 39 for 200 yards and an interception. After being outgained 261 yards to 83 while running just 20 plays to Tampa Bay’s 40 in the first half, the Bengals scored on drives of 13, 31, 13 and 39 yards with help from Bucs mistakes after halftime.
Brady lost for the first time in a 23-year career after leading by at least 17 points. He was 89-0 in such games before Sunday.
The league’s career passing leader was 30 of 44 for 312 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked once, losing a fumble that Joseph Ossai recovered to put Cincinnati in position to go ahead 20-17 on Boyd’s TD catch and Burrow’s 2-point conversion throw to Higgins with 2:40 remaining in the third quarter.
Brady also fumbled, handing off to Leonard Fournette at his 39 late in the third quarter.
“The two fumbles were my fault. It was uncharacteristic,” Brady said. “One of the interceptions was just a terrible throw. The other one, I got hit, the guy was laying on the ground and the ball landed in his arms.”
Burrow finished the Bengals’ eighth win in nine games with his scoring pass to Wilcox, capping a 62-yard drive that burned nearly seven minutes off the clock down the stretch.
Tampa Bay went from doing little right in a 35-7 loss to San Francisco to scoring on three of four first-half possessions, with Ryan Succop kicking 21-yard field goal on a drive that stalled at the Bengals 3 and Brady throwing TD passes of 1 yard to Russell Gage and 5 yards to Chris Godwin.
The second half was a different story, with the entire third quarter being played inside Tampa Bay’s 40-yard line and Burrow converting an interception, two fumbles and a botched fake punt into three touchdowns and a field goal to take control of the game.
“We got smacked in the mouth a little bit in the first half and then responded the right way,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “That’s a good win on the road against a team leading their division.”
JOE ON THE ROAD
Burrow has accounted for 21 TDs — 19 passing, two rushing — while only throwing five interceptions in eight road starts this season. He improved to 4-0 with 14 TDs — 11 passing, three rushing — against the NFC South.
Bengals: DE Trey Hendrickson (wrist) was inactive. Also played without CBs Mike Hilton (knee) and Jalen Davis (thumb) and TE Hayden Hurst (calf). … DE Sam Hubbard (calf) left in the second quarter and did not return.
Buccaneers: All-Pro RT Tristan Wirfs missed his third straight game with a high ankle sprain after being limited in practice and listed as questionable. … WR Julio Jones (knee), DT Vita Vea (calf), CB Jamel Dean (toe), and LB Carl Nassib (pectoral) were also inactive because of injury. … S Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle) left briefly in the first quarter, finished the game.
Bengals: at New England on Christmas Eve.
Buccaneers: at Arizona on Christmas night.