Don't Ask How Or Why; Hold On Tight And Enjoy
If you believe there is truth in numbers, you won't buy what we're about to tell you. The stat sheet would argue fervently the other way, but the Bucs really did beat the Atlanta Falcons 30-27 Sunday. They really are tied for first place in their division. The playoffs have gone from something you might have wished for to something you can almost touch. No, honestly. We're not kidding.

The Bucs really have won consecutive games they would have lost a year ago, even if those games have been the kind you watch with your hands covering your eyes. Get used to it. If you like your football simple, your victories clean, this is not the team for you.

If, on the other hand, you care only about the result and don't mind how you get there, climb aboard. Something special is happening here. It won't be easy, and you may need to keep 9-1-1 on speed dial, but as long as it keeps ending the same way, who cares? "It doesn't have to be pretty," cornerback Ronde Barber said.

Take this game, for instance. Atlanta ran 31 more plays and outgained the Bucs by 185 yards. The Falcons converted an absurd 11 of 17 third-down attempts, while the Bucs converted just twice. But remember what we said about the numbers. That same defense that was pushed around most of the day also scored one touchdown -- Simeon Rice forced a fumble in the end zone; Booger McFarland recovered -- and jumped on a game-changing fumble with the score tied and barely more than a minute to play. "I was 35 years old when this season began," linebackers coach Joe Barry said afterward. "Now I'm 58."

The Georgia Dome is where we knew last year that Martin Gramatica was done as a kicker, but on this day steady Matt Bryant kicked three field goals, including one from 45 yards with 42 seconds to go for the victory. Last year, Gruden didn't trust Gramatica to attempt a 46-yard field goal that would have tied the game. Instead, the Bucs went for it on fourth down and failed. This time, Gruden confidently kept the ball on the ground on third-and-10 at Atlanta's 34, willing to put the game on Bryant's toe. The kick was right down the middle. "We've won seven games, man. We won five all last year," Gruden said. "I'm proud of these guys."

Seven wins. The only number that matters at this point. In a season where the playoffs were supposed to be nothing more than a rumor, the Bucs have found a quarterback, found a running back and found ways to win when it doesn't look like they can. Remember Cadillac Williams? Seemed like the good ol' days of September on Sunday when he put up 119 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons. Remember Michael Clayton? He had three big catches on a day when the Falcons shut out Joey Galloway.

Remember what Chris Simms did last week against the Redskins? This game wasn't anything like that, but with Atlanta leading 27-20 late in the fourth, he hit three of four passes and led his team 71 yards for the tying score. Remember the offensive line, that five-man punch line? For the second consecutive week, Simms wasn't sacked. "Right now we've got a lot of confidence," Rice said. "We know we're not playing our best football, we know we gave up too much, we know all those things. But from a personal standpoint, we can honestly say our best football is yet to come."

This is starting to become a trend. We weren't sure how they beat Washington last week. We're really not sure how they won this game, either, especially after Atlanta tried to give it away in the first quarter but then came back to take the lead.

You don't give away a 13-point lead on the road, as these Bucs did, and hope to still beat a good team. You don't win when the other team has the ball for 12 more minutes, as the Falcons did. Unless, of course, you're the Bucs and you're starting to believe you can win no matter what. "Great teams win the nail-biters," McFarland said.

It still won't be easy. The Bears, next week's opponent, aren't giving up any points. The Bucs still have to go to Carolina, and we know what always happens there. There is a mid-December trip to New England, where it may be chilly. Lots of work yet to do. A couple of more games like the past two, though, and the obstacles won't seem as high. "Winning here speaks volumes for us," Rice said. "We're 7-3. We're climbing that hill. [The Falcons] are a perennial team, and for us to come down here in their house and get a victory -- even play them close and lose but we won the game. That says a lot for what we've got going on."

That's all that matters, really. Maybe it's time to stop asking questions like how and why and just enjoy this ride for what it is. We have reached Thanksgiving, and the Bucs are atop the division. Seven wins. Maybe you really can have faith in numbers after all.

Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 21 November 2005