Bucs 23 Eagles 21 - The game report
It didn’t seem possible, but somehow Matt Bryant found a way to trump Ronde Barber’s two-touchdown, déjà vu performance. What did Bryant do? Only nail one of the most stunning field goals in NFL history, a 62-yard game-winner to provide the final points at the end of regulation in a 23-21 Tampa Bay Buccaneers win over the visiting Philadelphia Eagles. It was the second-longest game-winning field goal ever in the NFL, trailing only Tom Dempsey’s historic 63-yarder for New Orleans against Detroit on November 8, 1970.

“It was a very exciting, thrilling victory,” said Jon Gruden. “I’m very proud of our football team. “Obviously Matt Bryant gets own room when we go on road now, and anything else he wants. “That’s one of most dramatic finishes to a football game any of us will ever see. To beat a team like Philadelphia is an amazing accomplishment, I don’t care what the statistics say. To beat two of the best teams in football in two straight weeks is quite an accomplishment.”

Bryant’s desperation attempt completed a 20-yard, 33-second drive that also trumped Brian Westbrook’s apparent game-winner seconds earlier, a 52-yard catch and run on which he broke at least three tackles.

And what did Barber do to set the bar so high? Only become the first player in Buccaneer history to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same regular-season contest, a feat that helped the Bucs build a 17-0 lead 10 minutes into the second half. Barber’s performance was eerily familiar, particularly his first touchdown. Donovan McNabb, short pass left. Barber, perfect read and sudden cut. Open field to the end zone. Six. That sounds familiar, right?

Only minutes after his seminal play in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, a clinching 92-yard interception return off McNabb, was played on the Raymond James Stadium videoboards, Barber provided his own replay. Though the setting was a bit less critical and the game a lot longer from being over, Barber’s interception and 34-yard return off McNabb on Sunday set the tone for an absolutely crazy afternoon.

How crazy? Consider this: The Eagles, who came in with the league’s top-ranked offense, out-gained the Bucs in total yardage by a 310-yard margin, 506-196. But turnovers proved to be the key for the Bucs’ defense, which had gone the previous two games without coming up with a single takeaway.

Amazingly, as if Barber hadn’t woken up McNabb’s championship-game demons with his first pick, he victimized the Eagle passer for yet another touchdown two quarters later. This time his 66-yard return gave the Bucs a 17-0 lead and set up the Eagles’ own incredible comeback.

In the NFC Championship Game, Barber faked a blitz and then dropped into the zone he correctly expected McNabb to target. This time, the Bucs did blitz, with linebackers, and Barber sniffed out a quick slant, leaving his man in the slot to slice under WR Hank Baskett for the pick. In the third quarter, Barber got to a long pass before it could reach intended target Greg Lewis, then high-stepped all the way down the sideline for the score. Incredibly, those were the ninth and 10th touchdowns of Barber’s career, not including that playoff interception. He is the team’s all-time leader in that category, by three over LB Derrick Brooks.

It figured that Barber would lead the charge in the Bucs’ desperate search for big plays on defense. After going two straight games without a takeaway – and still winning one and narrowly missing a second W – the Bucs’ defense came into Sunday’s contest intent on getting their hands on the ball. The result: Three turnovers in the game’s first 16 minutes, culminating in Barber’s touchdown, and then the third-quarter score by Barber. The first two takeaways, a Barber forced fumble and a Juran Bolden interception, negated two Philadelphia drives that had reached scoring territory.

Meanwhile, the Bucs’ offense didn’t turn the ball over once despite throwing a rookie quarterback into the breach against one of the league’s most aggressive defenses. The Eagles blitzed relentlessly and the Bucs admittedly went to a very conservative approach, and that helped QB Bruce Gradkowski manage the game effectively. “We had zero turnovers in the game today,” stressed Gruden. “None. Zero. And they didn’t.”

Of course, McNabb is as accomplished and competitive as Barber, and he almost got the last laugh on this day. After the Bucs took that 17-0 lead, he gamely rallied the Eagles to a 21-20 lead, often running for big gains on his own. The effort was so taxing – he finished with 76 rushing yards and numerous lengthy scrambles – that the Eagles had to call a timeout early in the fourth quarter to attend to McNabb, who had vomited as he approached center. The game was played under difficult conditions, as well, as the kickoff temperature was 88 degrees, which felt like 97 thanks to the 74% humidity.

Three plays later after losing his pregame meal, McNabb escaped another near-sack and threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to WR Reggie Brown. That cut the lead to 17-14, and the Bucs countered with an important, six-minute field goal drive. Gradkowski’s critical third-down pass to Ike Hilliard kept the drive alive, and two penalties on Jerome McDougle after he sacked Gradkowski added 30 yards to the march. Bryant finished it with a 44-yarder, one of his three field goals on the day.

The Eagles had 2:49 left on the clock after that and a six-point deficit to overcome. They did so rather easily, driving 80 yards on eight plays in two minutes and 16 seconds. The Bucs forced a third-and-six near midfield but a short pass to Westbrook turned into the 52-yard score when the back stepped out of Derrick Brooks’ diving tackle attempt and bounced off two other defenders to get clear on the right sideline. Westbrook finished the game with 214 yards of offense, including 101 yards on 13 carries and 113 yards on seven receptions.

Westbrook might have scored a bit too fast, however. Michael Pittman took the ensuing kickoff in the end zone with 33 seconds to play and used six of those seconds to gash straight up the middle to the Bucs’ 34. Two plays later, Gradkowski completed an 11-yard pass to WR Michael Clayton and the Bucs used the first of their two remaining timeouts. Gradkowski then took off up the middle on the next snap and got nine more yards; it might have been much more had he not stumbled as he started to run. The Bucs used their last timeout at that point and tried one more pass play with 10 seconds to play.

Gruden said after the game that the final offensive play had a chance to gain six yards to TE Alex Smith, but Gradkowski stumbled again on his drop and had to throw it away. The Bucs’ last recourse, save for a very low percentage “Hail Mary” pass was Bryant’s 62-yarder.

Were the Bucs confident Bryant would make it? That might be stretching it. The NFL record for longest field goal, shared by Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam, is 63 yards, so this was of historic length. However, Bryant’s kickoff out of the end zone after his previous field goal, in the same direction towards the north end zone, did give the Bucs’ sideline some hope. “You saw him kick off prior to Philadelphia’s last scoring drive,” said Gruden. “There was a bit of a breeze, but he boomed [the kickoff] out of there. I saw him kick two 54-yarders on the practice field this week. “I had the feeling that if he could get the ball up, if we could get the protection so he could get it up, he could make it.”

And he did, setting a new Buccaneer record in the process. The previous longest field goal in team history was Michael Husted’s 57-yarder against the Los Angeles Raiders on December 19, 1993. Bryant’s own longest in a regular-season game was a 50-yarder against Atlanta last year on December 24.

The Bucs needed Bryant’s heroics and its opportunistic defensive performance because its very green offense had difficulty moving the ball in the face of Philadelphia’s relentless blitzes. Gradkowski completed just 13 of 26 passes for 104 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He took only two sacks on the day despite the pressure, however, and didn’t come close to throwing an interception.

He was also supported by a running game that fought hard throughout the game despite a slow start. RB Cadillac Williams gained 82 yards on 23 very tough carries despite getting only 22 yards on his first 11 totes. In all, the Bucs ran 30 times for 111 yards, getting 68 of those in the second half. “A productive running game takes the pressure off the quarterback sometimes,” said Gradkowski. “Cadillac hits the hole hard. His enthusiasm out there helped us today.”

Not every big play was turned in by the defense, of course, or even by one of the team’s long-time standouts. Second-year WR Paris Warren turned in his first career reception in impressive fashion, plucking the ball out of the air over CB Joselio Hanson for a 26-yard gain on third-and-eight just before the two minute warning in the first half. That put the ball at the Eagles’ 27 on Tampa Bay’s first sustained drive of the game. Unfortunately, the Bucs came up empty on that critical opportunity, forced to punt after moving backward on a tripping penalty on T Jeremy Trueblood.

That miscue could have been critical, but for one surprisingly poor decision by McNabb. Left with 59 seconds in the half and all three timeouts, the Eagles passer was able to drive his team the length of the field, at one point scrambling for 20 yards on his own. A 14-yard pass to TE L.J. Smith put the ball at the Bucs’ six and the Eagles spiked the ball with nine seconds to play in the half.

That’s where McNabb tossed a pass he’d probably like to have back. With his end zone options covered, McNabb threw underneath to Smith, who was immediately swarmed by Barber and S Will Allen at the two. The clock ran out long before the Eagles could line up for another snap.

Thanks to that decision, the Bucs were able to take a 7-0 lead into the halftime despite being out-gained 250 yards to 92 in the first two quarters. They also took the momentum into the locker room, and came back out with it intact, driving 58 yards for a field goal on the opening possession of the second half. The Bucs converted one third down and one fourth down on the drive but stalled at the Philadelphia 12 when a third-and-two rollout pass to Mike Alstott was well-defended. Bryant gave the Bucs a 10-0 lead with a 30-yard field goal to cap the 14-play, eight-minute drive.

It didn’t stop there. Barber’s second touchdown came just three plays later, giving the Bucs a 17-0 lead 10 minutes into the second half. On the play, DE Simeon Rice swarmed over McNabb just as he delivered the pass, possibly altering its course.

The Eagles continued to roll on offense, however, and by finally avoiding the turnover they were able to score on their next two possessions, both extended drives. The first was a 79-yard march keyed by McNabb’s 37-yard run up the middle, the result of one of the many Buc blitzes that worked in Philadelphia’s favor. The Bucs nearly kept the Eagles out of the end zone, but McNabb escaped a sack by Rice and threw off his back foot to FB Thomas Tapeh. Bolden went for the interception, arrived late and was out of position to make the tackle on what would prove to be a 12-yard touchdown.

Brian Westbrook ran for 23, 11 and 12 yards on the Eagles’ next drive, which took seven plays to go 72 yards. McNabb finished the drive by once again escaping a possible sack and rolling right before throwing the seven-yard touchdown pass to Brown.

It may not erase an 0-4 start, but a two-game winning streak over a pair of serious playoff contenders might just get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thinking about the postseason chase again, too. Last week, the Bucs scored a last-minute touchdown in a 14-13 victory over Cincinnati, also at Raymond James Stadium. The wins put the Bucs at 2-4…and 2-1 since Gradkowski stepped in at quarterback. The mini-streak marks their first consecutive wins over teams with winning records since last November, when they scored thrilling victories over Washington and Atlanta on back-to-back weekends. That proved to be the pivotal stretch for the eventual NFC South champs, who had lost two straight coming in to drop to 5-3.

This Buccaneer team would gladly take a 5-3 mark but will have to settle for a decided underdog role at least until they’ve worked their way back over .500. If that’s going to happen, it won’t be because the schedule got any easier. The Bucs’ next three games are all against winning teams – N.Y. Giants, New Orleans and Carolina – with the Giants and Panthers games on the road. The Carolina game also begins an almost ridiculous stretch of three games in 11 days for the Buccaneers. The Bucs will head into that difficult stretch with confidence after prevailing over one of the NFC’s most dangerous teams. Thanks to Bryant’s unbelievable kick, they might also head into the rest of the season with a sense of something wonderful on the rise.