TAMPA, Fla. — It was the same sad story for the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New England became the latest team to come from behind and beat the Buccaneers, rallying from a two-touchdown deficit Sunday to a 32-14 victory before a crowd of only 34,661.
The defeat mathematically eliminated the Buccaneers from the NFC Central race with half the season still to be played. Even if the Chicago Bears (8-0) somehow lost their last eight games and Tampa Bay won eight in a row, the Bears would win the division because they've beaten the Buccaneers twice.
"We never worried about being behind," New England Coach Raymond Berry said. "We weren't playing the clock. We were playing the team, not the clock. Our players were communicating and they believed they could do it."
Craig James ran for two touchdowns and passed for another as the Patriots (5-3) won their third straight game to climb back into the AFC East race.
James threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Tony Collins in the second quarter and scored on runs of 8 and 22 yards in the fourth quarter.
"We have a championship defense and that helps offensively because we can rely on each other and get the total job done," James said. "We've been down before, and they did jump on us quick. We just had to be patient.
"But we're glad to get this game behind us because we had the monkey on our back. Next week will be a big one at home against Miami. They're all big from now on."
Kicker Tony Franklin kicked field goals of 35, 50 and 49 yards, and the New England defense--which stiffened after allowing two first-quarter touchdowns--added a safety.
Injury-riddled Tampa Bay (0-8) led at halftime for the fourth time this season.
"This was the worst one yet," Buccaneer wide receiver Kevin House said. "We came out storming and then gave it away."
The Buccaneers built their 14-0 lead on Steve DeBerg's 16-yard touchdown pass to Jimmie Giles and James Wilder's one-yard run--both coming in the first 10 minutes of the game.
New England began its comeback early in the second quarter with Franklin's field goals of 35 and 50 yards, and James' touchdown pass to Collins.
Franklin gave the Patriots a 16-14 lead with 49-yard field goal with 10:12 left in the third period, and James' first touchdown run came six seconds into the final quarter.
"They are a better football team than we are. The last three games took their toll," Buccaneer Coach Leeman Bennett said, referring to Tampa Bay losses against Miami, Chicago and the Rams. "We came in hurting and came out worse than going in.
"We started out fine, but we just weren't as strong as they were. They wore us down."
New England's defense dominated the Buccaneers in the second half and held DeBerg--who threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns against Miami last week--to 141 yards on 13-of-26 passing.
Wilder, the NFL's leading rusher, gained 63 yards on 21 carries against the league's ninth-ranked defense.