Keeping their postseason hopes alive required the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defying the numbers.
Late in the third quarter of their game against the New Orleans Saints, they faced a 4th-and-1 from the Saints' 18. Josh Freeman faked a quarterback sneak and dropped back to pass, connecting with Mike Williams in the end zone for the score. That was a gutsy call.
Entering Week 17 this season, there had been nine pass attempts of at least 15 yards on 4th-and-3 or shorter. Quarterbacks were 1-for-9 on such throws with one touchdown and one interception. It was only the second time all season the Bucs attempted a pass of that length on any fourth-down situation, with Freeman having success on both occasions.
The Buccaneers won with their defense, as several teams did early Sunday afternoon. Entering Week 17, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was the highest-rated passer on throws more than 10 yards downfield (minimum 70 attempts). On Sunday though, Brees went just 4-for-12 with a 17.7 passer rating.
Playoff berth or not, Tampa Bay took a significant leap forward, going from three wins in 2009 to 10 wins this season. Their seven-win improvement rates the best in the NFL (the St. Louis Rams can match them with a win tonight).
Elsewhere, none of the eight teams that lost one of the early games scored more than one touchdown. Among the highlights from other contests:
• Mike Wallace had his sixth game with at least 100 receiving yards and a catch for a touchdown, in a rout of the Browns, breaking a tie with Roy Jefferson (1969) for the most such games in Steelers history. In the same game, Rashard Mendenhall rushed for two scores, giving him 13, one shy of Franco Harris' team record for rushing touchdowns in a single season, set in 1976.
• Likewise, BenJarvus Green-Ellis had his 13th rushing touchdown in the New England Patriots win over the Miami Dolphins. He too finished one short of the team's single-season record for rushing touchdowns, previously done in 1995 and 1996 by Curtis Martin.
• The Oakland Raiders crushed the Kansas City Chiefs to finish 6-0 in divisional play. Somehow the Raiders were unbeaten and averaged 35.8 points against AFC West teams, but went 2-8 in their other games, averaging just 19.5 points.