Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0
SAN FRANCISCO (AP)
From 3-13 a year ago to playoff contender.
Say what you like about the inexperienced Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday's shutout at San Francisco might just be that signature victory this franchise needed to gain some national respect at last.
All it took for Tampa Bay to finally win again at Candlestick Park was a methodical, mistake-free day of football.
''We want to go out and do anything we can to win games and we want to have fun doing that,'' Freeman said. ''It's all about our mentality. People were telling us, 'Man, you can't go to the West Coast and win.' We won last year and won on the West Coast and this is a completely different team. We're rejuvenated and we're ready to push forward.''
The NFL's youngest team is right in the thick of the NFC South title chase and making a legitimate playoff push.
Nothing fancy needed for the Bucs (7-3) to end an eight-game losing streak in San Francisco. They were the underdog, no less.
Ronde Barber made his 40th career interception in the fourth quarter, most in Tampa Bay franchise history, to help clinch it. He also became the first player in NFL history to record 40 interceptions and 25 sacks in a career.
49ers quarterback Troy Smith lost for the first time in three starts and was sacked six times - leaving coach Mike Singletary to ponder whether to return to former starter Alex Smith next week for San Francisco (3-7). Singletary said he would watch film before making a decision.
''It's a banner day for us on the defensive line as far as getting to the quarterback,'' Barber said. ''That's huge for us. It sets the tone going into the latter part of the season. This is a real fun victory for us.''
The Niners were shut out at home for the first time since a 7-0 loss to Atlanta on Oct. 9, 1977.
This was yet another surprising performance by the young Bucs, a dominant day one week after their 31-16 win over Carolina.
Blount, who nearly joined the 49ers then changed his mind and briefly went to Tennessee before the Bucs picked him up off waivers in September, easily broke one tackle and hurdled safety Reggie Smith for a 16-yard gain late in the third quarter. That set up Freeman's 8-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams two plays later. The rookie played two days after his arrest on a DUI charge early Friday.
Tampa Bay's other Williams - running back Carnell - scored on a 6-yard TD run in the second quarter.
Freeman's numbers weren't necessarily that impressive, but he kept several drives going with his feet, heads-up decisions and key third-down completions.
Tampa Bay's stingy defense did its part, too. San Francisco managed only 189 total yards and 11 first downs - never reaching the red zone. And two of those first downs came via penalty. San Francisco had the ball for only 23 minutes, 36 seconds, to Tampa Bay's 36:24 in time of possession.
''These guys are playing great,'' Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. ''I told you guys, stats are for losers. We don't deal with that. We deal with playing hard, playing fast, playing smart and playing consistent.''
The 49ers punted from the Tampa Bay 33 and 38 on their two deepest drives into Bucs' territory. San Francisco ran only 21 offensive plays in the first half, with Smith getting sacked on two of those. That made for a lot of extra stress on the defense.
Singletary went with Smith again even though Alex Smith is healthy from a separated non-throwing left shoulder he hurt at Carolina on Oct. 24. Singletary has said he would name his starting quarterback each week - though this debacle was hardly all Troy Smith's fault.
A win here would have put the Niners right back in the chase in the mediocre NFC West, a division they were picked to win before the season. Now they hit the road for games at Arizona and Green Bay.
''It always starts with the head coach, always. I'm very much aware of that,'' Singletary said. ''We're all in this together.''
San Francisco was trying for a third straight victory and fourth in five following an 0-5 start. Still, team president Jed York declared to ESPN after the awful start that the franchise would fight back to capture the division and reach the playoffs - which would mean ending a seven-year postseason drought.
''Hard to believe? You see the record every day,'' All Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said. ''We have to live with it.''
It could have been worse. San Francisco caught a break when Connor Barth hooked a 41-yard field-goal attempt wide left with 5:11 remaining in the third quarter.
Smith was 16 for 31 passes for 148 yards after throwing for 552 yards on 29 of 47 passing in his first two starts, including rallying the Niners to a 23-20 overtime victory against St. Louis last Sunday.
The Bucs improved to 3-23 in the regular season in the state of California.