There's no telling where they go from here or what this will mean in the end. After all, the Bucs don't even bother to talk about the playoffs anymore, which is how it should be.
The postseason is still too much of a pipe dream for these guys - even with Dallas and Seattle losing on Sunday, which had to happen. And if the Bucs' season ends in such a way that they can look back and say that everything turned on a single moment, they at least will know when and where that moment occurred.
It was late in the first half of Sunday's 14-7 victory against the Saints, who were on the verge of knocking the Bucs out for good when Joe Horn inexplicably dropped what seemed to be a certain touchdown pass. ``My heart skipped a beat right there,'' Brad Johnson said. ``I mean, that could have been it for us. Instead, the momentum turned.''
It turned in a hurry. Before the Bucs could finish breathing their sigh of relief, they had forced two fumbles, blocked a punt and scored two touchdowns during a nine-play span that just might have saved their season. Don't laugh. Stranger things have happened. After all, the Bucs needed those losses by Dallas and Seattle on Sunday just to avoid being airbrushed out of the NFC's wild-card picture and they got that. And it wasn't like coach and master motivator Jon Gruden revved up his players by delivering his most heart-wrenching Knute Rockne pregame speech Saturday night.
No, in a corny spiel inspired by the movie ``Elf,'' which he took his children to see Friday, Gruden talked of how Santa's sleigh is powered by spirit and how the Bucs should now use that same source to fuel their ship. The address had most of Gruden's audience members wondering if he had lost it while they tried to stifle their laughs, but the players on defense sure seemed to get the message.
After a lackluster appearance a week ago against Jacksonville, the Bucs limited Saints back Deuce McAllister to just 88 total yards, sacked quarterback Aaron Brooks seven times and recovered three fumbles. And they did a lot of that without Warren Sapp, who missed most of the second half with a left foot sprain. Sapp still had his moment in the spotlight, catching the game- winning touchdown pass late in the first half.
It was the second time this year Sapp has caught a touchdown pass after lining up as a tight end near the goal line. But this one didn't result in Sapp doing some Beyonce Knowles-inspired touchdown dance. After losing the ball in the lights - and with visions of Horn dropping his pass fresh in his mind - Sapp said he was happy just to fall to the ground with the ball still cradled in his hands. ``I've been known to make a couple of big moves and big plays for us and that was the time to make one,'' Sapp said. ``It was a big play for us when we needed one.''
The Bucs were in need of big plays almost from the start Sunday. Though their defense started strong against the run, allowing McAllister to gain just 39 yards on 19 first-half carries, their pass defense struggled. Brooks completed each of his first seven passes and staked the Saints to a 7-0 lead with 1:39 to play in the first quarter when he took advantage of a breakdown in coverage and connected with Boo Williams on a 31-yard scoring pass. ``I went into the game at the last second there and never heard what the play was,'' said safety David Gibson, who was forced into the game when John Lynch pinched a nerve in his neck and was forced out on the previous play.
It took a while, but Gibson eventually made up for his missed play. After a Brooks fumble led to the Bucs' first score - a 14-yard pass to tight end Ken Dilger - Gibson blocked a punt to set up the second. ``I just shot through the C- gap and dropped my shoulder,'' Gibson said of the play that resulted in cornerback Ronde Barber recovering the ball and carrying it to the Saints' 1. One play later, Brad Johnson connected with Sapp.
``Sometimes you just have to be lucky,'' Barber said of the big plays that steered the momentum the Bucs' way. ``But when you're lucky, you have to take advantage of it and today we did.''
Not entirely. The Bucs got the ball as a result of forced fumbles twice in the second half but failed to score. One of those blown scoring chances came as a result of Tebucky Jones blocking a Martin Gramatica field goal try. Gramatica also missed another field goal attempt, slicing a 44-yarder wide right four plays after Saints kicker John Carney had missed a 49-yard try. ``Both of those [misses] were big,'' Gruden said. ``They were momentum plays that could have given us a 10-point lead.''
In previous weeks, that 10- point lead would have been important. And with Sapp and Lynch ailing (a sprained ankle by Gibson forced Lynch to return and play hurt), it figured to be important again. Though playing with a lineup laden with reserves, the Bucs defense dominated, holding the Saints to one first down in the fourth quarter. ``We're all about keeping hope alive right now and that's what we did today,'' Lynch said. ``To be the champion you've got to knock the champion out and nobody's done that yet. We've been sent to the corner a few times, but we're still standing. They haven't waved us off yet.''