TAMPA, Fla. -- Dreadful for a half, Tampa Bay found a way to win again. Josh Freeman has a knack for helping the Buccaneers do that.
The second-year pro led another fourth-quarter rally Sunday, throwing a 1-yard touchdown pass to Cadillac Williams with 10 seconds remaining to beat the St. Louis Rams and their young quarterback Sam Bradford 18-17 before a season-low 42,020 -- more than 23,000 shy of capacity -- at Raymond James Stadium.
"It's not always going to be pretty," Freeman said. "But every time we go out there, we feel like we can win."
Connor Barth kicked four field goals for the Bucs (4-2), who trailed 17-3 before battling back to surpass their win total for last season.
"We're the best team in the NFC," exuberant coach Raheem Morris declared, just a week after the Bucs lost 31-6 at home to defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans. "Yeah, I said it. We're the best team in the NFC."
Bradford threw two short touchdown passes and Steven Jackson became the Rams' all-time leading rusher before things unraveled for St. Louis (3-4). Jackson finished with 110 yards on 22 carries, hiking his career total to 7,324.
"It's bittersweet," Jackson said. "It's something that I've worked really hard for, for a long time -- a goal that I actually set coming in as a rookie in 2004.
"So to achieve it means a lot. I just really wish that we were able to cap it off with a win. It's kind of hard to be celebrating about an individual's success when it's a team sport."
Freeman, the third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft, has led fourth-quarter comebacks in five of seven career victories. He produced 10 points in the final three minutes to beat Cincinnati 24-21 last week, and overcame an 11-point deficit to beat Cleveland in this year's season opener.
In those situations "the only thing I say to him is 'Go do what I brought you here to do,'" Morris said. "There's no other person I want out there when I'm coming from behind. ... I have so much confidence in the young man."
Bradford threw TD passes of 5 yards to Danny Amendola and 2 yards to Michael Hoomanawanui to build an early lead that held up until Freeman marched the Bucs 81 yards in 16 plays to finally get the ball into the end zone.
"This one hurts a lot," Bradford said. "To be up 17-3 at one point, to be up 17-6 at half, and then come out and just really not be able to get anything going on offense, this one's tough."
Freeman completed 23 of 40 passes for 212 yards and no interceptions. He kept the winning drive alive with a 9-yard throw to Kellen Winslow on fourth-and-3, then used a 20-yard completion to Mike Williams on third-and-10 to get the ball to the St. Louis 1.
Out of timeouts and rolling to his right, Freeman found Williams running through the middle of the end zone for the TD on second down.
Barth kicked field goals of 35, 39, 53 and 38 yards.
"He was our offense most of the day," Freeman said. "He kept us in it."
A week after joining Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk as the only runners with at least 25 100-yard rushing performances for the Rams, Jackson moved ahead of Dickerson, who gained 7,245 from 1983-87, on a 3-yard carry to midfield.
Amendola scooted 21 yards on an end around on the next play, and Jackson broke a 12-yard run to set Bradford's short TD throw to Amendola to finish an 80-yard drive that put St. Louis up 10-3 midway through the second quarter.
Hoomanawanui's touchdown, three plays after the Rams took a field goal off the board when Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber was penalized for being offside, made it 17-3.
The Bucs played without three injured offensive starters -- center Jeff Faine, guard Keyrick Vincent and fullback Earnest Graham -- as well as reserve tight end Jerramy Stevens, who was arrested Saturday night and charged with marijuana possession.
They were extremely sloppy early, setting the tone for a long day when two penalties and a sack left Freeman facing second-and-goal from the St. Louis 35 after Stylez White sacked Bradford, forcing a first-quarter fumble that Kyle Moore recovered at the 6-yard line. The Bucs did get some points of out it with Barth kicking his first field goal after Freeman got some of the yardage back with a 23-yard pass to Williams.
Jackson gained 74 yards on 12 carries in the first half. The Bucs slowed him in the second half, in part because Freeman finally got the offense on track.
Tampa Bay overcame 12 penalties for 92 yards by holding the ball for nearly 11 minutes of the third quarter, then another 6:33 of the final period.
Bradford finished 13 of 26 for 126 yards and no interceptions. He was sacked once.
Rookie LeGarrette Blount was one of the keys to Tampa Bay's comeback. He rushed for 72 yards and 11 carries and had a 46-yard run nullified by a penalty.
"You've got to stop the run," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "They didn't have a lot of run yardage in the first half, but to their credit, they went back to it or stuck with it in the second half."
Bucs rookie DT Gerald McCoy, Bradford's close friend and former college teammate, had two tackles in the first matchup between two of the top three picks in this year's draft. McCoy is still looking his first NFL sack. ... The Rams finished with 161 yards rushing, but only had 96 yards total offense in the second half.
- Mike Carey