As they had for three hours Sunday, they soaked up the atmosphere. Not only did the Bucs absorb pelting rain that made for sloppy playing conditions at Pro Player Stadium, but they took a few moments in a triumphant locker room to wring out their emotions from a 16-13 victory over the Dolphins. Behind closed doors, Tampa Bay players and coaches celebrated like they had won something more than a football game. And maybe they had.
The Bucs won for the sixth time in their past seven games, beating the AFC East leaders by intercepting Jay Fiedler four times and recovering his fumble.
Tampa Bay turned those turnovers into 13 points, including a 31- yard interception return by linebacker Jamie Duncan for the only Bucs touchdown.
Duncan also recovered a fumbled snap by Fiedler to set up the winning 46-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica with 8:12 left in the game.
But the outcome wasn't decided until safety Damien Robinson intercepted Fiedler at the Tampa Bay 9-yard line with 14 seconds remaining.
"It was like a bunch of kids out there playing and that's what it felt like," said safety John Lynch, who played despite reinjuring his dislocated left shoulder. "It was raining, you're soaked, but you're still out there playing. Mom's calling you in, but you're still playing. It was fun. I was having a blast out there, regardless of how (I was) hurting. It's just what football is all about. They were battling hard, we were battling hard, and it was just a test of wills and we came out on top. I just think when you're told all week this is going to be a war, a 15-round fight, and sure enough it turns out to be one and you come out on top with the knockout blow at the end, that feels good."
Special teams coach Joe Marciano described the celebration in the locker room another way.
"You should've seen it in there," Marciano said. "It was like we'd won the Super Bowl."
Of course, that wasn't the case, but Sunday's win means the Bucs have a better chance to reach Super Bowl XXXV after the Lions and Redskins lost Sunday.
It's simple. If the Bucs win their last two games, they will host at least one playoff game.
"That was really a big game for us, obviously," coach Tony Dungy said. "A mind-set game. Coming in here, Miami was playing excellent football. I think maybe the best team in the AFC, and they were hot. The elements weren't the way anyone liked them. But you have to find a way to win and I was proud of our team for doing that."
All week long, the Bucs and Dolphins engaged in a war or words about which team owned the best defense. Sunday, the Bucs proved they were a little better.
"There was a big deal made out of it," said defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who made some of the inflammatory comments. "I never meant any disrespect to them. I said they had a lot of talent, but, overall, I thought we were the best unit working together. They took it and got all fired up about it and turned it into a defensive battle. But that's fine. I wanted to pump our defense up, too. Hey, let's prove who's better out here."
Fiedler had not thrown an interception in 93 attempts when he rolled out on a bootleg and did not see Duncan slip underneath running back Lamar Smith. Duncan intercepted and, using a block by Ahanotu, returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. Fiedler, playing with a sore left shoulder, also was intercepted by cornerback Donnie Abraham, linebacker Shelton Quarles and Robinson.
The Bucs needed all of them. Quarterback Shaun King did well to complete 11-of-15 for 147 yards with an interception and was sacked four times. But he failed to get his team in the end zone, even with first and goal at the Miami 1.
Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt even took a swipe at the Bucs offense. "If that is a normal team out there today, we're run out of the stadium," he said.
With the game played in drizzle or pelting rain, the Bucs put it in the hands of running back Warrick Dunn, who weighs about 180 - soaking wet. Dunn handled the ball on 34 of the Bucs' 57 plays and did not commit a turnover. He also accounted for 143 (59 rushing, 84 receiving) of the Bucs' 221 yards. Perhaps no play was bigger than the last one.
On third and 7 from the Bucs 5 with 2:15 to play, Dunn caught a screen pass in his own end zone and was driven backward by Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain. Dunn somehow spun out of the tackle and surged forward to the 4, avoiding a safety that would have cut the Bucs lead to 16-15 and given Miami the ball back.
"I turned my back to him, he pushed me back and a sense of urgency said get out of the end zone," Dunn said. "I was running for my life and I tried to get out."
The Bucs were far from perfect on the Dolphins' final drive.
Needing just a field goal to send the game into overtime, Miami got first downs after cornerback Brian Kelly interfered with Oronde Gadsden and Robinson was called for holding ex-Buc Bert Emanuel, giving Miami a first down at the Tampa Bay 19.
That's when Fiedler made a huge mistake. He was called for intentional grounding. The penalty was loss to the spot of the pass (11 yards), loss of down and 10 seconds taken off the game clock.
On the next play, with 25 seconds left, Robinson sealed the win with his interception.
Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey will besecond- guessed for taking a chance throwing the ball with the Dolphins already in range for kicker Olindo Mare.
"We were trying to score," Wannstedt said.
Dungy didn't disagree with the Dolphins coach.
"I think they wanted to try to win it, and you can't fault them for that," Dungy said. "Damien made a great play. I thought the big play was the grounding penalty, even more so than the interception."
Another decision that Wannstedt and the Dolphins will rue is the one to try to score before halftime. Miami had the ball at its 20 with 22 seconds remaining.
Fiedler's pass, intended for O.J. McDuffie, was tipped by Derrick Brooks and grabbed by Quarles. The play set up Gramatica's 38-yard field on the last play of the half to give the Bucs a 10-3 lead.
"It was a weird thing to see," Ahanotu said. "I thought the smart thing for them to do was to go into the locker room. That was a huge momentum swing. That's one way for us to get the ball down the field."
Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000