CINCINNATI -- Josh Freeman had no timeouts to use and a packed stadium screaming for him to make another inexperienced mistake that would decide the game.
Uh-uh, not this time.
These baby Bucs are growing up.
Freeman led Tampa Bay to a signature win Sunday, directing two scoring drives in the closing minutes for a 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Connor Barth's 31-yard field goal with 1 second left secured a major breakthrough for the upstart Buccaneers.
At 3-1, they've matched their victory total for all last season, when they dropped their first seven under first-year coach Raheem Morris. They were on the verge again Sunday against a Cincinnati team that seemed to have one well in hand.
"It took us 15 weeks to win this many last year," said Freeman, who started as a rookie in that dreadful season. "We're a young team, but we feel we have the opportunity to win every game. And it's not who's leading the longest, it's who's leading at the end."
The Bengals (2-3) were, until Carson Palmer's interceptions turned it around.
And now, the defending AFC North champions are in a lot of trouble.
"We're a 2-3 team, and it's not a good team," safety Chris Crocker said. "We gave it away."
Freeman, who missed two plays in the first half after getting dazed by a hit, showed poise with no timeouts left and 63,888 fans screaming for him to give it away. He scrambled 9 yards for a first down, threw a 15-yard pass to Mike Williams, then perfectly lofted a pass to Williams in the end zone. Williams out-jumped Johnathan Joseph for the tying touchdown with 1:26 to go.
"I've got all the confidence in that guy to make the play one-on-one," said Freeman, who finished 20 of 33 for 280 yards with an interception. "You get only so many opportunities to atone for the mistakes you make. Today was a great example of that."
Freeman's best throw was yet to come.
Palmer drove the Bengals to midfield and tried to connect with Ochocinco. The ball slipped off his fingertips and went directly to Sabby Piscitelli, who returned it to the 34-yard line with 14 seconds to go.
"It was like inches, inches away," Ochocinco said. "It was third down. I lunged for it. It was right at my fingertips."
Freeman's next throw was his best. He made a perfect pass to Micheal Spurlock at the 13-yard line. Spurlock got the toes of both feet down while falling out of bounds -- the call was upheld on review.
When Barth's kick went through, the Bucs did hip-bumps in celebration and started running off the field.
One second too early.
The Bengals threw away a multilateral return on the kickoff, starting that Tampa Bay celebration all over.
"I was more emotional after I got off the field and caught my breath," Morris said.
The Bengals will have two weeks to catch theirs. They head into their bye with no idea why their passing offense is so bad.
Palmer threw three interceptions, including a quick out that was intercepted by Cody Grimm and returned 11 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Palmer finished 21 of 36 for 209 yards. Three of his third-down passes were dropped by wide-open receivers.
The only time Cincinnati moved the ball consistently was when it reverted to the run-first philosophy that got it to the playoffs last season. Cedric Benson carried 23 times for 144 yards, his first 100-yard game of the season. He set a club record with six last season.
It wasn't enough to overcome those two last-minute interceptions.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis blamed himself for calling the passing plays late in the game instead of running. Palmer disagreed.
"We felt like we had the game in control, and those two plays sealed our fate in this one," Palmer said. "I'm the quarterback of this team. I need to find ways to win the football game."
Bucs C Jeff Faine left in the second quarter with an injured right thigh and didn't return. He walked off the field with assistance. ... S Sean Jones hurt his back in the first quarter and stood on the sideline with ice on his back. ... The Buccaneers have won their last six games against Cincinnati. ... CB Ronde Barber started his 172nd straight game, tying Dick LeBeau for the longest streak by a cornerback in league history. ... Owens violated the NFL's restrictions on tweeting less than 90 minutes before a game. He grew perturbed when asked about it afterward.
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