TAMPA - Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden is famous for his oft-used exclamatory statement, "Jiminy Christmas!"
With Gruden's Buccaneers winning a dramatic, 27-24 overtime thriller against the defending NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons - and eliminating Atlanta in the process - on Christmas Eve, "Jiminy Christmas!" was about the only appropriate thing to say after an exhilarating, heart-stopping victory that kept Tampa Bay's playoff hopes and NFC South championship wishes alive due to Carolina's surprising 24-20 home loss to Dallas.
"Wow. I'm very proud of our team," Gruden said after the victory. "I just have to keep reminding myself that the game is officially over. That was a real gut check. Things did not look good for a little while."
Gruden was right. The Buccaneers, now 10-5, dodged losing to the Falcons on more than one occasion on Saturday. With Atlanta leading 24-17 with 39 seconds left and Tampa Bay facing a fourth-and-1 at the Falcons' 6, rookie rusher Carnell "Cadillac" Williams bounced a running play to the outside to score the game-tying touchdown with 31 ticks remaining in regulation and force overtime.
Little did both teams know that a winner would not be determined until just 15 seconds remained in the overtime quarter. In fact, it looked as if the game would be decided much earlier. After Tampa Bay won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball first in overtime, Edell Shepherd fumbled the ball on his kickoff return at the Tampa Bay 18, which silenced the stunned crowd of Bucs fans at Raymond James Stadium.
After Atlanta ran two plays and gained eight yards down to the Bucs' 10, Todd Peterson trotted out for the apparent game-winning field. But defensive end Dewayne White and guard Jeb Terry would knife through the Falcons' line and block Peterson's kick. Cornerback Brian Kelly recovered and advanced the ball nine yards to the Tampa Bay 31 before being tackled by tight end Alge Crumpler.
Thanks to runs of 11, 8 and 6 yards by Williams, who finished with 150 yards against Atlanta, and a 30-yard strike from Chris Simms to Joey Galloway, who led all receivers with eight catches for 97 yards, Tampa Bay had a first-and-goal situation at the Atlanta 9. Because the ball was placed on kicker Matt Bryant's favorite hash, Gruden didn't hesitate to send him out to attempt the potential game-winning, 27-yard field goal. But Dave Moore's snap was low, which disrupted Bryant's timing and forced him to push the kick wide left.
Time winded down to 1:52 remaining in overtime after the Falcons and Bucs exchanged punts. Atlanta's final possession started at its own 16-yard line, but ended three plays later when Michael Vick's pass to wide receiver Michael Jenkins was broken up by Bucs' Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber on third-and-2 from the Falcons' 24. That incompletion was the second of the series and stopped the clock with 1:08 remaining.
Atlanta punter Michael Koenen launched a 53-yard blast down to the Tampa Bay 23 where Bucs punt returner Mark Jones fielded the punt and raced 28 yards down to the Falcons' 49 with 54 seconds left. Simms, who was poised throughout the game and completed 29-of-42 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons, hit rookie tight end Alex Smith for a 15-yard gain across the middle before throwing to fellow tight end Anthony Becht on a similar play, which gained 11 yards, two plays later. After Becht's completion, Simms spiked the ball with 21 seconds left at the Atlanta 23-yard line and Bryant came out for the game-winning field goal, which was good from 41 yards out.
After the game, Gruden praised his team's resiliency throughout the ebb and flow of the game.
"I haven't seen this kind of resolve in my life," Gruden said. "In my lifetime as a coach, that was resolve today. We showed great resolve in the Washington game and in the earlier Falcons game. I'm as proud of that as anything as we've instilled as a staff. A lot of that comes from the players. We've added some guys who are relentless in their efforts to be great. If we can add a few more over the years, hopefully we can return to that game we want to get to."
While Saturday's win over Atlanta doesn't guarantee them a playoff spot, Tampa Bay's victory - coupled with Carolina's loss - puts the Bucs in the driver's seat to win the NFC South title and secure a home playoff game. To do that, all Tampa Bay has to do is beat the New Orleans Saints, whom the Bucs will host next Sunday on New Year's Day, to capture its first division title since 2002. Although Carolina and Tampa Bay have identical 10-5 records, the Bucs have the lead due to their 4-1 record in the NFC South, compared to Carolina's 3-2 division mark.
If Tampa Bay shows the heart next Sunday against the Saints that it showed on Saturday against the Falcons, the Bucs should have no problem beating New Orleans. Tampa Bay's defense showed tremendous heart in limiting Atlanta to only 281 yards and sacking Vick four times. Defensive end Simeon Rice took down Vick twice, while linebacker Derrick Brooks and safety Dexter Jackson each recorded a sack.
Aside from Williams' fourth down touchdown and his 150 rushing yards, which put him over 1,000 yards on the season, and Simms bouncing back from two second quarter interceptions that were turned into 10 Atlanta points, Smith showed a lot of heart, too, and stepped up big with a career-high eight catches for 75 yards while also throwing some key blocks.
But perhaps the most resilient Buc of all was Bryant, who atoned for his missed 27-yard field goal in overtime with a 41-yard game-winner to give Tampa Bay fans an early present on Christmas Eve.
The Falcons' first touchdown of the game was set up by a 47-yard pass interference call on Tampa Bay cornerback Brian Kelly, who was guarding rookie receiver Roddy White on the play. That penalty occurred on the Bucs' 4-yard line. On the next play, which was first-and-goal from the 4, Vick hit fullback Justin Griffith with a play-action touchdown pass to put Atlanta on top 7-0 with 3:27 remaining in the first quarter.
Tampa Bay answered on its next possession with a six-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that featured another big pass interference call. Smith keyed the Buccaneers' drive with back-to-back catches of 18 and 13 yards - the first of which was on a brilliantly executed tight end middle screen. On first-and-10 on the Atlanta 41, Simms launched a deep pass to Galloway, who was open momentarily before Falcons safety Bryan Scott drew a 30-yard pass interference call by hitting Galloway early. That set up Tampa Bay with a first-and-10 situation at the Falcons' 11. Two plays later from the 9-yard line, Simms ran a play-action fake and found fullback Jameel Cook open in the left flat for a touchdown. The play was almost identical to Vick's touchdown pass to Griffith earlier in the quarter. With 20 seconds left in the first quarter, the score was tied 7-7.
On second-and-10 from the Atlanta 26, Vick scrambled and fumbled the ball as he was attempting to slide after a 3-yard gain. Tampa Bay defensive end Dewayne White forced the fumble and nose tackle Chris Hovan recovered at the Atlanta 29. An 8-yard run by Williams was followed by a 6-yard fullback dive play by Mike Alstott. Two plays later, Simms used another play-action pass to score a touchdown, this time finding a wide-open Alstott in the left flat. Alstott caught the ball, turned upfield and leapt over Scott to get into the end zone. The 13-yard touchdown pass came with 12:59 remaining in the second quarter and gave the Bucs a 14-7 lead.
Atlanta would force a turnover of its own to tie the score at 14-14. Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney sacked Simms from the blindside and forced him to throw an interception to Pro Bowl middle linebacker Keith Brooking. An unsportsmanlike conduct foul on Brooking, who taunted the Bucs' bench by spiking the ball near the sidelines, backed up the Falcons to their own 47-yard line, but they would still drive 53 yards in 11 plays to score a game-tying touchdown. The key play on the drive was on fourth-and-2 at the Tampa Bay 31-yard line when Atlanta elected to go for the first down instead of attempting a long field goal. Vick slipped as he dropped back to pass, but quickly gathered himself and threw a strike to Jenkins for a 6-yard gain down to the Tampa Bay 25. Barber was beaten for the first down, and Jenkins would beat him once again five plays to score an 8-yard touchdown in the left part of the end zone. With 3:19 remaining in the second quarter, the score was knotted up at 14-14.
Atlanta capitalized on its momentum by picking off Simms again to set up another score. With 59 seconds left before halftime, Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall jumped up and picked off a pass intended for Galloway at the Atlanta 22 and returned it 65 yards to the Bucs' 13-yard line. But Atlanta couldn't pick up a yard and saw its drive stall at the Tampa Bay 13 on third down. Peterson was summoned to kick a 31-yard field goal with nine seconds left before halftime to give the Falcons a 17-14 lead.
Tampa Bay grabbed some much-needed momentum at the start of the fourth quarter when a wide-open White dropped a 38-yard touchdown pass from Vick. White caught the ball, had both feet in bounds, but did not maintain possession as he hit the ground in the middle of the end zone. Atlanta challenged the play, but instant replay confirmed the incompletion. On the next play, a third-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 38, Jackson blitzed Vick and threw him to the ground for a violent sack.
That play helped turn the tide as Tampa Bay would tie the score on a nine-play, 50-yard scoring drive. Tampa Bay overcame two offensive holding penalties on the drive and was aided by a 17-yard catch by tight end Anthony Becht on third-and-5 at the 50-yard line. A 21-yard catch by Galloway got the ball down to the Atlanta 36-yard line, but Tampa Bay's drive fizzled at the 32. Bryant trotted out to kick a career-long 50-yard field goal to tie the game at 17-17 with 9:01 left in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta would score and take the lead on its next possession. Running back T.J. Duckett accounted for 17 yards on the ground, but the key play was Vick throwing a jump ball to Jenkins on third-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 39. Jenkins out-leaped Barber to come down with a 37-yard gain at the Bucs' 2. Duckett would rush for a 2-yard touchdown on the next play to put the Falcons up 24-17 with 4:23 left in the fourth quarter before Tampa Bay embarked on a daring Christmas Eve comeback.
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