By Justin Palmer
LONDON (Reuters) - The Chicago Bears intercepted quarterback Josh Freeman four times and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-18 Sunday in the National Football League's (NFL) fifth annual regular season game at Wembley Stadium.
The Bears dominated until the final quarter when Freeman rallied the Bucs with touchdown passes to Kellen Winslow and Dezmon Briscoe but hopes of a comeback ended when D.J. Moore picked off Freeman again with 36 seconds left.
It was a miserable return to London for Tampa Bay who were shredded 35-7 by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Wembley in 2009. Freeman made his NFL debut that night when he came in late to run out the clock in the fourth quarter.
He again left disappointed as Sunday's defeat left Tampa Bay with a 4-3 record in the NFC South, the same as the Bears whose victory allowed them to keep tabs on NFC North rivals Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
Tampa Bay's run defense has been inconsistent all season and the Bears were able to establish their running game through Forte who rumbled for a 32-yard score in the first quarter and 145 yards in all in front of nearly 77,000 fans in London.
By contrast, Tampa Bay suffered a major blow when Earnest Graham, starting in place of injured running back LeGarrette Blount, sustained an ankle injury early in the first quarter and sat out the rest of the game.
That put the pressure on Freeman to produce but he could not find his rhythm or range until the final quarter with the Buccaneers trailing 21-5.
Freeman completed 29 of 51 attempts for 264 yards while opposite number Cutler was picked off twice. Cutler threw for a touchdown and 226 yards in all.
Forte's slaloming run put the Bears on the scoreboard first in a first quarter in which both quarterbacks were shaky.
Tenard Jackson intercepted Cutler to put the Bucs in great scoring position but Freeman was intercepted near the one yard line. But the Bucs did not go away empty handed as a smothering defense then forced a safety.
Cutler found Roy Williams with a 25-yard pass midway through the second quarter, the wide receiver skipping into the corner of the end zone to put the Bears in control.
Freeman finally got the Bucs moving when he engineered a 75-yard drive late in the half that set up Connor Barth's 33-yard field goal and cut the deficit to 14-5.
Tampa Bay's offensive struggles continued after the restart and the Bears punished them again when Marion Barber capped a 55-yard scoring drive with a 12-yard run to extend the lead.
On the Buccaneers' next possession, Freeman was intercepted by Lance Briggs who returned the ball to the one-yard line but the play was returned to midfield for an illegal block.
Freeman's woes continued when he was intercepted again early in the fourth quarter but Cutler was then picked off by Corey Lynch at the Chicago 35 and this time Freeman made them pay, tossing a two-yard pass to Winslow.
Tampa Bay were starting to find holes in the Bears defense and Freeman picked out Briscoe with a 24-yard pass for a touchdown to bring the hosts within three points.
Gould's field goal made it 24-18 with 1:55 to go and Freeman could not engineer another rally.
The Bucs are the first team to return to London for a regular-season game since the league began playing in the capital in 2007. The NFL decided this month to keep playing in London through to at least 2016.
(Additional reporting by Nigel Hunt and Tom Pilcher, Editing by Frank Pingue)