Martin Gramatica's last-minute 53-yard field goal - his fourth of the game - includes a kickback: The Bucs are tied for first in NFC Central. Martin Gramatica had Freon in his veins when he lined up for a 53-yard field-goal attempt, the wind at his back, the win in his face. The Bucs rookie placekicker, with a rich soccer background from his native Argentina, is known for his fist-pumping, pogo-stick jumping theatrics even after making an extra point.
But after his dramatic, game-winning field goal with 58 seconds left in the Bucs' 19-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, nearly everyone at Raymond James Stadium shared in the celebration. Automatica made them ecstatica. It was the fourth field goal by Gramatica, who also kicked a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter and helped the Bucs erase a 10-point first-quarter deficit. Cornerback Donnie Abraham made it stand by returning his second interception of the game 47 yards for a touchdown 31 seconds later.
"I think our team really knows that they can do whatever it takes to win," Tony Dungy said. "It's not always going to be according to the game plan. But the thing I like about our guys, they don't panic. When everybody else is ready to throw in the towel and say maybe the season is over or the game is over, they're not going to do that. "When you don't score touchdowns, it's not aesthetically pleasing. But they played well on defense. I thought Martin came through in a huge way. So it was pretty in my eyes."
So now the Bucs' season is at a crossroads and it is a three-way stop. A third straight victory, coupled with Green Bay's win over Detroit, left Tampa Bay tied for the NFC Central lead with the Lions and Vikings at 6-4. The Bucs play at Seattle (8-2) Sunday. "It really does come down to a six-game season," Dungy said. Abraham's first interception, with 9:15 remaining, led to Gramatica's 50-yard field goal that cut the Falcons' lead to 10-9. His second interception sealed the victory.
That the Bucs won for the second time this season at RJS despite not scoring a touchdown was a credit to their defense. The Falcons had good field position at their 36-yard line, 58 seconds and two timeouts remaining - plenty of time to position Morten Andersen, one of the best kickers in NFL history, for a winning field-goal try.
But on third and 7 from the Atlanta 39, running back Winslow Oliver bobbled a short pass from Chris Chandler and lost the handle when he was hit by linebacker Derrick Brooks. Abraham snatched the deflection and returned it down the east sideline for a 47-yard touchdown - marking only the second time the defense has scored since Dungy arrived in 1996. "They just needed a couple plays to get in (Andersen's) range," Dungy said. "So we didn't want to see that happen. But generally, your big-play players are going to step up and that's what happened."
Despite two promising outings since being benched, quarterback Trent Dilfer and the Bucs offense struggled from the outset Sunday. The Falcons, coming off a bye week, were rested and well prepared and it showed, stunning the Bucs with a 10-0 first- quarter lead. Tampa Bay's first possession ended in an interception when Eugene Robinson caught a Dilfer pass that deflected off Warrick Dunn's hands. That set up the Falcons' only touchdown: an 8-yard run off a misdirection play by receiver Tim Dwight, who lined up in the backfield.
The Falcons padded that lead at the end of the first quarter on Andersen's 28-yard field goal. After that, the Falcons looked less like the defending NFC champs and more like the 2-8 train wreck they have become. "We just woke up. We were just out there walking dead," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We looked flat out there. We kind of said it on the sidelines, 'Let's go, let's get it going.' "
The Bucs defense clamped down and held Atlanta to 169 yards, its season-low. The Falcons managed just 80 yards, three first downs and two turnovers in their next nine possessions. After converting its first five third-down attempts, Atlanta finished 5- for-14. For the third time this season, the Bucs offense failed to score a touchdown. But the defense and Gramatica kept it close. His field goals of 24 and 26 yards in the first half sent Tampa Bay to the locker room trailing 10-6. "We didn't play as well offensively as we wanted to. Give them a lot of credit," Dungy said. "They blitzed us to stop the run. That seemed to be their game plan, to put pressure on us. I expect that's a strategy we'll see from other people. We're going to have to be ready to deal with it."
It took two critical fourth-quarter drives to pull the game out. Fullback Mike Alstott, belittled for his three fumbles last week against Kansas City, gained 29 of his 48 yards to set up Gramatica's 50-yard field goal that cut the Falcons' lead to 10-9. Dilfer's 9-yard scramble for a first down, and his ability to avoid a sack that would've taken the Bucs out of field-goal range, kept the next series alive for Gramatica's heroics.
Before the game, Gramatica, now 18- for-22 in FG tries, told Dungy he felt confident about anything inside 55 yards. He said he never had a chance to get nervous warming up on the sideline for the winning kick with punter Mark Royals. "I probably would've, but Mark did a good job of keeping me relaxed and talked to me," Gramatica said. "He just told me to relax. The thing he said was, 'I'm going to be the first one to congratulate you on a game-winner.'
It was a little early for that, but he just had all the confidence in me. He kept me relaxed and focused on what I had to do." It's tough enough as a rookie, but Gramatica had the added pressure of being a third-round pick and the 80th player chosen overall, making him the highest-drafted kicker in club history and earliest since Jason Elam was taken 70th by Denver in 1993. "At that point people are questioning a third-round pick for a kicker and it runs through your mind," safety John Lynch said. "But from the moment he stepped in here and we put him in that situation, the guy has just been nails."
Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 1999