TAMPA - In what will surely go down as one of the greatest games in franchise history, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers converted an incredibly gutsy two-point conversion play with 58 seconds left to beat the visiting Washington Redskins, 36-35.
After some no-so subtle hints during the week from Bucs head coach Jon Gruden that Mike Alstott would get more touches on Sunday after producing a touchdown and two first downs with just three opportunities in last week's loss to Carolina, Alstott showed off some vintage "A-Train" power by plowing ahead for Tampa Bay's game-winning two-point conversion after rushing for two short-yardage touchdowns earlier in the game.
After Edell Shepherd's 30-yard touchdown catch brought the Bucs within one point of tying the game with less than a minute left, the Redskins field goal rush team simulated the snap of the ball and drew a 5-yard penalty for trying to get Tampa Bay to false start. On the next attempt to tie the game, Matt Bryant's extra point was blocked by Walt Harris, who had surrendered Shepherd's touchdown catch on the previous play.
But Harris was guilty of jumping offsides, and the ball was moved up a yard from the 2-yard line. With the crowd already buzzing from the Bucs' fourth quarter comeback, the 65,421 in attendance were at a fever pitch when Gruden called his extra point team off the field and sent his offense - led by Alstott - back onto the field to try for two points and go for the win.
The Bucs knew they were going to run Alstott for the two-point conversion. The fans in attendance knew it. The millions watching on a nationally televised Fox broadcast knew it. The Redskins knew it - but they couldn't stop it.
"Fourteen Blast - that was the call," said Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker, whose block helped pave the way for Alstott's 1-yard plunge that electrified Tampa Bay's sidelines and just about everyone in Raymond James Stadium. "It was a gut check for us. For the two-point conversion to be right behind my (butt) and Gruden looking at me and saying, 'Okay, you owe me one from last week,' - that was the best feeling to see Mike Alstott right on top of me."
But before the Buccaneers could kick the ball off after taking a 36-35 lead, instant replay official Howard Slavin called down from the booth and told referee Bill Vinovich that he wanted him to review the play as Alstott barely got the ball over the goal line before being tackled. While Gruden and the Bucs had lost two other replay challenges earlier in the game, this play would stand and Tampa Bay would notch its sixth win of the year, which is one more than they achieved in last year's disappointing 5-11 season.
After the game, Gruden, who received the game ball from the team for the gutsy, two-point conversion call, said he thought about going for two points and the win even before the offsides penalty on Washington occurred.
"It crossed my mind, but after the second penalty I wouldn't have been able to wake up tomorrow not knowing what we would have done with (Mike) Alstott," Gruden said. "Our goal line offense has been pretty good and I wanted to give him a good look. We were inside the 1-yard line and I just thought it was the thing to do given the fact Washington had moved the ball very well. There are no guarantees what happens in overtime."
Alstott, who produced the biggest game he's had in years, left the field after the win with tears in his eyes as the raucous Tampa Bay fans were chanting "Alstott! Alstott!" In the locker room, he confessed that this game was one of his best in his 10-year Buccaneers career.
"Other than the Super Bowl, yes," Alstott said. "No question about it. We have less than a minute and he (Coach Gruden) calls my number, yes, it's up there. It's probably number two with the Super Bowl.
"You have to put the trust in your team and the players, and say, 'The heck with it.' You have to gamble once in a while, and when it happens and it is successful, it's always great."
Several Bucs players were shocked that Gruden was ballsy enough to put the offense back out on the field for the game-winning two-point conversion.
"[Coach Gruden] surprised me, to be honest with you," said Bucs receiver Joey Galloway, who had seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown in the win. "Everybody else in the building wanted to go for two, but we're at home, we have Alstott in the backfield. You couldn't ask for a better situation to go for two. Alstott had one of his better games since I've been here, so to have an opportunity to let him carry it across the goal line and win for us, you can't ask for a better situation than that."
The way the day was going for the Buccaneers, it was destined that they would go for a two-point conversion. Aside from Alstott's two-pointer and his two touchdowns, here are other examples of how the number "two" mysteriously played a part in a victory that moves Tampa Bay to 6-3 on the season while Washington falls to 5-4.
After going two games without making his presence felt, defensive end Simeon Rice came up with two big sacks and two forced fumbles, as well as one of the Bucs' two interceptions of quarterback Mark Brunell, who threw two touchdowns, of course.
Tampa Bay was only flagged for two penalties for 15 yards in what was easily the most disciplined performance of the year by the Buccaneers.
Two backup receivers - Shepherd and Ike Hilliard - stepped up in place of the injured Michael Clayton, who was inactive for the game with a knee bruise, and scored their first touchdowns in a Tampa Bay uniform today.
And last, but not least, young quarterback Chris Simms, who happens to have a big number "2" on his jersey, had his best outing as a pro in showing tremendous poise and arm strength in throwing a career-high three touchdown passes in the victory.
Simms, who was 15-of-29 for a personal-best 279 yards, was given a lot of time to find open receivers and wasn't sacked due to a superb job from the offensive line, the backs and the tight ends, who did a great job in the max protection schemes that Gruden called. With Tampa Bay's running game still struggling and producing only 61 yards against a stiff Washington defense, the outcome of the game rested largely on Simms' shoulders and he delivered, especially on Tampa Bay's final drive.
"It was huge," Simms said. "To be quite honest with you, I've never really been a part of anything like that. Even in college, or in the NFL. In college, my only chance was the play everybody sees when Roy Williams jumps over the pile and hits me in Oklahoma; that was my only chance at a two-minute drive in college. It was big, just giving out team confidence that we can get the job done no matter what the circumstances."
Tampa Bay's defense responded to Gruden's challenge to put more pressure on the quarterback and produce more turnovers with two sacks, a key fumble recovery and two interceptions on the day. But the NFL's number one-ranked defense gave up 185 yards on the ground, including 144 yards on 23 carries by Clinton Portis, who also scored a touchdown with 8:19 left in the game to put Washington ahead 35-28.
Washington was threatening to dent the scoreboard first after Portis reeled off a 31-yard run down to the Buccaneers' 39-yard line in the first quarter. But on third-and-8, Tampa Bay cornerback Juran Bolden picked off a Brunell pass intended for David Patten at the 25-yard line and returned it 28 yards to the Bucs' 47.
The Bucs picked up their first first down of the game on second-and-5 when Alstott rushed for seven yards on his first carry down to the Washington 37. Two plays later, Simms threw a perfect, 34-yard pass to Galloway, who was pushed out of bounds at the Washington 4. Alstott picked up four yards on the next two carries, including a leaping, 2-yard touchdown plunge that gave Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead with 7:16 left in the first quarter.
The Redskins answered with an eight-play, 55-yard scoring drive that featured an 11-yard run by Portis, a 16-yard catch by tight end Chris Cooley and a 22-yard catch by Santana Moss down to the Bucs' 12. But Tampa Bay thwarted a touchdown on third-and-7 from the 9 when defensive end Simeon Rice sacked Brunell and forced a fumble. The loose ball was recovered by guard Derrick Dockery at the 13, which set up a 33-yard field goal by John Hall to make the score 7-3 with 3:33 left in the first quarter.
After runs of 19 and 16 yards by Portis on its next drive, Washington was threatening to score again. But on second-and-15 at the Bucs' 30, a Brunell pass intended for Moss was deflected by Bolden and intercepted by Rice at the Tampa Bay 35. Although, the Bucs couldn't turn that turnover into points, their next one did.
On third-and-9 at the Washington 21, Rice beat a double team block by Cooley and left tackle Chris Samuels to sack Brunell at the 10 and forced a fumble. Dewayne White recovered at the 5-yard line to set up another Bucs touchdown that came two plays later when Alstott crossed the goal line on a 1-yard run to give Tampa Bay a 14-3 lead with 7:52 left in the first half.
Washington answered that score immediately on a 94-yard kick return touchdown by Ladell Betts. Betts eluded Dave Moore and Marquis Cooper to get to the left sidelines, and then outraced Blue Adams to the end zone. It appeared as if Betts stepped out of bounds near the Washington 25, but despite Tampa Bay challenging the play, the ruling on the field stood. With 7:52 left in the second quarter, the Redskins pulled closer, 14-10.
Tampa Bay would extend its lead on its next series as it embarked on a five-play, 67-yard drive. The big play on the drive came on the second snap when Simms was flushed from the pocket and found Alstott as an outlet receiver for an 18-yard gain down the left sidelines. After the throw, Simms was hit in the head by Washington defender Nic Clemons, which drew a 15-yard penalty and set Tampa Bay up at the Washington 30. Two plays later, Simms found Galloway on a slant pass for a 24-yard touchown. That score put the Bucs up 21-10 with 5:08 left in the second quarter. The touchdown was Galloway's seventh of the season.
The Redskins would score one more time before halftime to close the gap to 21-13 on a 40-yard Hall field goal.
The Bucs had terrible starting field position due to Torrie Cox muffing the opening kickoff in the second half and Jameel Cook drawing a holding penalty on the return. On the first play of the third quarter, rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who was held to 20 yards on 10 carries, fumbled the ball when he took a vicious hit in the backfield from Washington defensive tackle Joe Salave'a. Demetric Evans recovered for the Redskins on the Bucs' 7.
On third-and-goal from the 7, Brunell hit H-back Mike Sellers for a 7-yard touchdown to make the score 21-19. Brunell rolled to his left and hit Portis for the 2-point conversion pass to tie the score at 21-21 with 13:14 remaining in the third quarter.
Washington captured the lead for the first time of the game on its next possession. On third-and-11 at the Washington 40, Moss beat cornerback Brian Kelly with a double move and hauled in a 42-yard pass from Brunell down to the Tampa Bay 18. Then on third-and-9 at the Bucs' 17, Brunell threw a touchdown pass to Betts, who beat Derrick Brooks and Kalvin Pearson to the end zone to give Washington a 28-21 lead with 5:19 left in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay would answer that touchdown on a seven-play, 70-yard scoring drive. On second-and-10 at the Bucs' 30, Simms hit Hilliard with a 16-yard gain. Three plays later on third-and-9 at the 47, Simms connected with Shepherd on a 46-yard gain down to the Washington 7. Shepherd beat rookie cornerback Carlos Rodgers on the play. On second-and-goal from 4, Simms found Hilliard, who shook free from Harris, with a 4-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 28-28 with 1:53 left in the third quarter.
The Redskins' final scoring drive covered 76 yards in 16 plays and consumed 8:34 in the fourth quarter. Brunell was 8-of-8 for 39 yards on the scoring march, converting a third-and-1 situation with a 2-yard quarterback sneak, and a third-and-4 situation with a 6-yard pass to Cooley. But his biggest play of the drive came on fourth-and-3 from the Bucs' 35 when he bootlegged and found Betts for a 5-yard pass play. After Betts picked up two more first downs on runs of 10, 4 and 9 yards, Portis bounced an 8-yard run off right tackle on third-and-goal for the go-ahead touchdown to put Washington in front, 35-28.
Simms would drive the Bucs down to the Washington 7-yard line with just under four minutes left in the game with strikes of 18 and 33 yards to Galloway, but incompletions on third and fourth down turned the ball over to the Redskins at their own 12-yard line.
Tampa Bay's defense would stiffen and force a three-and-out after three-straight Portis runs gained only nine yards, and Simms would get one more chance to tie - or win - the game for the Buccaneers.
With 1:52 remaining, Simms hit Galloway for a 13-yard pass on first down. Two plays later, Simms found Shepherd, who had a career-high three catches for 87 yards, for an 11-yard gain down to the Washington 30 and promptly spiked the ball to stop the clock. On the next play, he threw a beautiful fade pass to Shepherd, who had one step on Harris and made a diving catch in the back of the end zone for what would turn out to be a game-winning touchdown and his first career score in the NFL.
In a clash of 6-3 teams, the Buccaneers will travel to Atlanta next Sunday to face the Falcons, who lost to Green Bay today, 33-25.
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