Dive into playoffs
Ever since the schedule came out in April, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers expected to beat the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football.
They just never, ever dreamed they would do it in such an unexpected manner.
In a rematch of last season's NFC Championship Game that lived up to its billing, and then some, the Bucs won a 38-35 shootout over the defending Super Bowl champions.
Trailing 35-31 and needing to drive 80 yards with no timeouts, the Bucs spackled together an improbable, almost impossible march that seemingly may not end until Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium. Warrick Dunn hurdled across for the winning touchdown from 1 yard with 48 seconds left.
It was the third touchdown of the game for Dunn, who finished with 145 yards on 22 carries.
The victory clinched the Bucs (10-5) at least an NFC wild-card spot. Tampa Bay could win the NFC Central if it wins at Green Bay Sunday and Minnesota loses at Indianapolis.
The Rams could miss the post-season unless they win at New Orleans on Sunday.
"We went to their place last year and played our game and they won it," Tony Dungy said. "They came to our place and we got into their style of game and we won it. I guess it's only fitting."
Tampa Bay's defense, which was riddled by Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, also intercepted him three times. The last one by safety John Lynch sealed the win with 25 seconds remaining.
Dunn's final touchdown completed a breathtaking drive in 1:48 that included some Houdini-like escapes.
Dunn improvised the most remarkable play of the game. After losing 14 yards on a swing pass from Shaun King, he pitched the ball backward to his quarterback, who scampered 29 yards for a first down.
"All I head was King yelling, 'Dunn! Dunn! Dunn!' It was unbelievable," Bucs guard Frank Middleton said.
King, who finished 18-of-38 passing for 256 yards and two touchdowns, hit Reidel Anthony for a 22-yard play to give the Bucs first and goal at the Rams 1 to set up Dunn's third touchdown.
"Warrick was fantastic," Dungy said. "It's the kind of thing you're used to seeing with Barry Sanders. The more opportunities he gets the ball, the better the chance he'll make a big play. He made things happen tonight. Nothing he does surprises me. I watched him at Florida State and four years here. He's just special."
He wasn't the only hero for the Bucs. Keyshawn Johnson, who collapsed in the stadium tunnel while fighting cramps after the game, turned in his best performance as a Buc with seven catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Dungy and Johnson embraced at midfield after the game and shared a special moment.
"We talked a little, and he said he was happy to be here and I said I was happy to have him," Dungy said. "We talked about what a special moment it was. That's why he's here. He's asked at times, 'Why am I here?' And this is why. He can elevate some people and he did it tonight."
Dunn's performance somehow overshadowed that of Rams running back Marshall Faulk, who scored four touchdowns for the second straight week.
And Warner came up with another timely fourth-quarter touchdown pass, this time a 72-yarder to Torry Holt, to give the Rams a 35-31 lead with 5:18 to play.
The Bucs led 31-28 in the fourth quarter and were looking to tack on more.
But King's fade pass to Johnson in the end zone was broken up by cornerback Dre Bly and intercepted by Dexter McCleon for a touchback.
Two plays later, Warner fired a slant pass to Holt, who made cornerback Ronde Barber miss and turned it upfield for a 72-yard touchdown.
The play gave the Rams a 35-31 lead with 5:18 to play.
It was an unbelievable turn of events for the Bucs. They had overcome a third-and-19 situation on the drive when King hit Jacquez Green on a 26-yard pass for a first down.
On the next play, Dunn exploded for a 21-yard run before he was dragged down just a yard shy of the goal line. But tight end Dave Moore dropped a potential touchdown pass trying to get his feet down inbounds. Dunn lost a couple of yards on second down before the stunning interception.
The Bucs didn't want to get into a shootout with the Rams, but at least they came armed with some bullets.
Tampa Bay's offense, which had been maligned as too conservative and unproductive, scored on four of its first five possessions.
The Rams cut the lead to 24-21 on Faulk's third touchdown, a 27- yard pass from Warner, with 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
After Karl Williams returned the ensuing kickoff 48 yards, Dunn took a lateral from King, then made linebacker Michael Jones and safety Keith Lyle miss on his way to a 52-yard run.
The play put Dunn over 1,000 yards rushing for the season for the second time in his career and the first since his rookie year.
Unfortunately, the best player wearing No. 28 Monday night might not have been Dunn, but Faulk. The Rams needed just seven plays to 73 yards, a drive capped by Faulk's fourth touchdown.
It was the first time in history a player has scored four touchdowns in a game three times in a season.
Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000