The kickoffs that had been flying through the back of the South end zone hinted that it was possible.
The orange flags waiving slightly high upon the goal posts pointed to the conceivable.
But NFL history and the 65,000-plus fans standing on their feet at Raymond James Stadium undoubtedly thought it highly impossible.
But Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden must have believed there was a chance. Down by a point with 3 seconds left in the game, Gruden called on kicker Matt Bryant to attempt a 62-yard miracle.
As the combined hopes of a team on the brink carried end over end through the humid air thought to be sucked out of the stadium just seconds before by a dramatic Eagles go-ahead touchdown, the absurd became reality, records became rewritten and the Buccaneers became winners of yet another game nobody gave them a shot at winning, defeating Philadelphia 23-21.
“As soon as I hit it, I was like well, maybe,” Bryant said of his game-winning kick. “I didn’t hit it as good as I thought I could’ve hit it. I saw it going probably 3-fourths of the way and then I lost sight of it. Somebody jumped on me and I heard cannons going off and I was like ‘ I guess I made it’.”
The attempt was made possible by a 37-yard kickoff return by Michael Pittman, an 11-yard pass from quarterback Bruce Gradowski to Michael Clayton and a nine-yard scramble by Gradkowski, which put the ball at the Eagles 44.
Bryant’s kick took back a victory seemingly stolen from Tampa when Eagles running back Brian Westbrook slipped by what seemed to be the entire Bucs defense, helping his team take its first lead of the game, at 21-20. There were just 33 ticks left of the clock.
The screen pass, which covered 52 yards, punctuated an Eagles comeback from 17 points down. It was the team’s third scoring drive of 70 yards or more in the second half, covering 80 yards in under three minutes.
On paper, Tampa Bay had no business being in the game in the first place. The Eagles outgained the Bucs in rushing yards (208-111), passing yards (298-85) and net yardage (506-196).
The only other factors that significantly impact the outcome of a football game are special teams and turnovers. And on this day they were dramatically in the Bucs’ favor.
Tampa’s defense had been widely criticized for its lack of turnovers, accounting for just four in the first five games of the season. They equaled that amount in three quarters against the Eagles, intercepting quarterback Donovan McNabb three times and forcing one fumble.
The facilitator on three of the turnovers was cornerback Ronde Barber, who had one of his best games as a Buccaneer, forcing a fumble and intercepting two passes for touchdowns.
Barber’s first theft occurred in the second quarter when he jumped a slant route on a pass intended for Eagles’ wide out Hank Baskett, returning it, untouched, for a 37-yard touchdown, breaking a scoreless tie.
It was the team’s first defensive touchdown since Dewayne White’s fourth quarter fumble return in the 2005 season finale against New Orleans.
Up 10-0 in the third quarter, and with the Bucs’ offense continuing to struggle, Barber did it again, this time stepping in front of a pass intended for Greg Lewis and taking it down the sidelines for the 66-yard score.
The interceptions were the 29th and 30th of Barber’s career, moving him into second place in franchise history behind Donnie Abraham’s 31. The touchdowns were the 9th and 10th of his career, a team record.
In addition to his first half interception, Barber forced a fumble by Jason Avant inside Tampa’s red zone which was recovered by nickleback Torrie Cox.
McNabb, had just two interceptions in six games coming into Sunday, was also picked off by Juran Bolden in the first quarter at the Bucs’ 31, ending an Eagles threat.
With Philadelphia driving toward a score in the last seconds of the second half, Barber and linebacker Shelton Quarles combined on a tackle, stopping tight end L.J. Smith on the Bucs’ 6-yard line as time expired. Philadelphia was out of time outs.
Just two weeks ago the Bucs defense was ready to be torn apart. At half time Sunday, it was the only thing keeping them in the game.
For the second week in a row, Tampa Bay’s offense failed to put up a single point in the first half, most of which can be blamed on their first down inefficiency. The Bucs fell behind in down and distance on every possession in the first half as seven of their eight first down plays gained 2 or less yards.
At the half, the team had only 59 yards passing and Cadillac Williams was ineffective with 20 yards on 10 carries.
The offense was, however, able to mount some sort of momentum in the third quarter with Williams finding space behind better blocking on the offensive line.
Williams carried the ball seven times for 39 yards on a 14-play drive that covered 58 yards and led to a 30-yard Matt Bryant field goal. The 10-0 score at that point marked the first time the Bucs have held a double-digit lead all season.
Williams, who finished with 82 yards on 23 carries, was outshined by his Eagles counterpart, Westbrook, who not only ran for 101 yards, but caught seven passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.
In his third start at quarterback, Gradkowski was very average, completing 13 of his 23 attempts for 104 yards. The offense accounted for just one play over 20 yards, a 26-yard pass to tight end Paris Warren in second quarter. But they did not turn the ball over, something Gruden stressed all week.
While Gradkowski doesn’t always make the play with his arm or with his legs, he’s developing a habit, call it odd luck, of being on the favorable end of penalties at key points in the game.
Last week a questionable roughing the passer call on Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith prolonged the team’s eventual game-winning drive. Against the Eagles Sunday, there was no doubting the infraction.
Defensive end Jerome McDougle sacked Gradkowski on a second-down play late in the fourth quarter. He was whistled with a personal foul for an obvious facemask. A 15-yard penalty. He compounded the call by kicking the penalty flag, tacking on another 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct and giving Tampa Bay a fist down at the Eagles 43.
That penalty would lead to Bryant’s second field goal, a 44-yarder, to put Tampa Bay up by six with 5:58 to play.
The lead was short lived as McNabb picked his way down the field after the Eagles started their final drive at the 20-yard line. What was most shocking about the drive was how easy a short screen pass to Westbrook turned into the go-ahead touchdown.
Derrick Brooks, Bolden, linebacker Barrett Ruud and safety Jermaine Phillips each allowed Westbrook and the lead to slip through their arms.
Five Buccaneers in all failed to bring him down, but none more glaring then Brooks, whose tackle would’ve stopped the elusive back for a minimal gain.
“It’s funny because the things you do the most in critical times seem to fail you,” Brooks said. “Again, I’ve made that tackle probably 500 [times].
“We all missed him. That’s partly because the guys are used to me bringing the guy down and they’re not having to make that tackle.”
With 33 seconds left, a Bucs comeback was improbable. But Bryant’s third field goal of the day was just that.
The 62-yard blast fell 1-yard shy of tying the league record (63-yards) held by both Tom Dempsey (New Orleans) and Jason Elam (Denver). It was the NFL’s second-longest game-winning field goal. Dempsey’s helped to beat Detroit on Nov. 8, 1970.
In the history of the league, there have only been five field goals of 60 yards or more.
“Well, you see him kick off prior to the Eagles last scoring drive. There was a little breeze down there, not much today, and he bombed it out of the end zone. I saw him kick two 54-yarders on our practice field this week. I just had a feeling that if he got the ball up, if we could protect where he could really get the ball up, he could make it.”
The 2-4 Buccaneers will spend this week preparing for the 3-2 New York Giants, who play the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football this week.