Traveling to Minnesota to play on Thursday night was supposed to be tough for Tampa Bay.
Rookie Doug Martin ran around the field as if he didn't want to leave.
Martin racked up 214 total yards -- including a career-high 135 rushing -- and two touchdowns, and the Buccaneers romped to a 36-17 victory to hand the Vikings their first home loss this season.
"It was pretty fun. I'm not going to lie," said Martin, who took a screen pass 64 yards for a score, one of three Josh Freeman's three touchdown passes, to give Tampa Bay a 27-10 lead just 1:21 into the second half.
Then Martin, the first-round draft pick from Boise State, capped a drive of more than 9 minutes with a 1-yard muscle into the end zone midway through the fourth quarter to crush the comeback opportunity for Minnesota (5-3).
"It's hard to come from college to the NFL. The speed of the game is definitely increased, and this is a feel thing. You're looking for that rhythm, as a running back, getting comfortable in the offense and having that game-time experience. I'm definitely there, right where I need to be," Martin said.
Adrian Peterson had a season-long 64-yard run for a score that brought the Vikings to 30-17, but his lost fumble in Minnesota territory in the second quarter led directly to a touchdown by the Buccaneers (3-4).
The Bucs, who became just the second visiting team to win on a Thursday night in seven games this season, revived their struggling pass rush with three sacks and flustered Christian Ponder with a heavy dose of blitzes. Ponder finished 19 for 35 for 251 yards, one touchdown and a late interception at the end of a desperation drive.
With a 13-point lead, just trying to keep that clock running as quickly as possible, the Bucs could've gone conservative, but they refused to settle for a punt. Starting at their own 13 with 1:12 left in the third quarter, they plowed their way up the field -- Freeman completed four third-and-long passes -- and finished off the game with Martin's third-and-goal touchdown run with 7:03 remaining.
"Ah, he is definitely an asset to our football team," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "For a young guy to have that kind of vision, to have that kind of patience as a runner, it's pretty impressive."
Freeman went 19 for 36 for 262 yards and, most importantly, no turnovers. Mike Williams had one of the touchdowns and 68 yards on six receptions, and the Bucs held the ball for nearly 38 of the 60 minutes.
With two games apiece against division rivals Chicago and Green Bay plus road trips to Seattle and Houston in the second half of their schedule, the Vikings have quite the challenge waiting for them and their strong start after Thanksgiving.
They faced an important test in this second half, too, after taking the clear advantage they had as the home team in this matchup and handing it over to the Buccaneers.
Their first three possessions were three-and-outs, Ponder started 0 for 5, Jerome Simpson lost a fumble after a short catch near midfield. The Bucs turned that into the second of Connor Barth's three field goals and took a 13-0 lead.
"It's always good to have a fast start, especially playing in an environment like this one. I think it makes things a lot easier down the road," Freeman said.
Harvin finally gave the Vikings some life by grabbing a screen pass for a 32-yard gain and then pivoting to haul in sideline pass over his shoulder for an 18-yard touchdown catch.
But Peterson, who was having no trouble reaching the Tampa Bay secondary with almost every run through the line, had the ball stripped after a spin move by the veteran Barber. The Bucs got the ball at the Minnesota 37, and Williams made a tricky catch in the corner of the end zone for a 3-yard score and a 20-7 lead.
The Buccaneers won only two of new coach Greg Schiano's first six games, but all four of their losses were by seven points or less. So here was their chance to finally enjoy a comfortable victory, setting up a second half that was just as eventful as the first.
Martin caught a screen pass and sped straight through the Vikings, escaping Chad Greenway's tackle and not stopping until he reached the end zone. The Bucs used a three-and-out by the Vikings to add three more points and stretch the lead to 30-10.
Peterson made up for his earlier fumble, though, by matching Martin's big play with one of his own, sprung by a pancake block from Simpson to reach the end zone and bring the Vikings back in it.
The game got even more intense, too, with Jared Allen and Donald Penn trading shoves after one play that left Minnesota's All-Pro with a facemask penalty and a bashed-up nose after Tampa Bay's Pro Bowl left tackle pried Allen's helmet off and got a personal foul of his own. Allen was yelling at Penn after the whistle, pointing at the blood running down onto his teeth and telling him he was coming after him. Allen finished off that drive with a sack, forcing the Buccaneers to punt late in the third quarter.
But Tampa Bay, after blowing a 21-7 lead in losing to New Orleans last week, finished strong this time.
"Guys are getting more comfortable with what we're doing and with each other," said Schiano, the former Rutgers coach. "We're getting better and that's what you're supposed to do."
NOTES: Peterson finished with 123 yards on 15 carries. ... The Bucs improved to just 4-13 in their history on the road in prime-time games. ... Harvin had 90 yards on seven catches.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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