Christmas Treat
Even after all that, the Bucs still don't have a lock on a playoff berth. What they do have is a firm grasp of first place in the NFC South division. Go figure. On second thought, don't bother. It's all too complicated. The only thing you really need to know is that a win next Sunday over New Orleans will give the Bucs the NFC South title and a first-round home playoff game.

That's what finally came of the Bucs' 27-24 overtime victory Saturday over the Falcons, who combined with the Bucs on a performance that was even more confounding than the playoff scenarios that stand in its wake. The Bucs won the game when kicker Matt Bryant drilled a 41-yard field goal with 15 second to play in overtime, but a lot of what happened before that simply left you shaking your head.

This was a game in which the Bucs fumbled away the overtime kickoff, blocked a potential game-winning overtime field goal and watched as their own kicker missed his first chance to win the game in overtime. It was a game in which the Falcons had the ball with two minutes to play but didn't know that they could have run out the clock, settled for a tie and stayed alive in the playoff race.

"We were analyzing that," Falcons coach Jim Mora said of settling for a tie. "[General Manager] Rich McKay was investigating it and you know, we couldn't come up with a solid answer. But I'm not really one for playing for ties, especially when I don't know for sure what it could give us. There are so many scenarios, so I'm not going to say, 'Hey guys, guess what? We're going to tie. That's for losers.' "

The Bucs know about losing. They suffered through two losing seasons in succession before they caught the train for what many thought would be a third straight this year. Now they're a victory away from clinching the NFC South title, and the best part of it is they don't need help from any other team to do it. "We just have to come prepared to play next week," quarterback Chris Simms said. "And I mean that. We can't take New Orleans (3-12) lightly because they've given us problems before."

The Bucs had some problems with the Falcons on Saturday but a lot of them were of their own making. A pair of Simms interceptions helped Atlanta produce 10 first-half points and then there was that fumbled kickoff in overtime. Edell Shepherd was the culprit on the kickoff. He lost control of the ball when he was tripped up near his own 15-yard line and Atlanta's Ronnie Heard fell on it at the 18.

A distraught Shepherd was still being consoled on the sideline when Todd Peterson set up to kick a 28-yard field goal, and the entire team was obviously relieved when Dewayne White leaped up and blocked it with his left hand. "In games like this guys have to step up and make plays and that's what we did," receiver Joey Galloway said. "Once we made that play, we felt like we were going to find a way to win the game."

They got their first chance just six plays later, after Simms converted a third-and-5 situation by hitting Galloway with a 30-yard pass to the Atlanta 9. That set the stage for a 27-yard field goal attempt by Bryant, who had already made good on two field goals, including a career-long 50-yarder that tied the game at 17 early in the fourth quarter.

On this try, though, Dave Moore's center snap slid across the ground. That skewed Bryant's timing and Bryant wound up hooking the ball wide left. Moore's snap two series later caught some ground as well, but holder Josh Bidwell fielded it cleanly, teed it up and Bryant split the uprights. "We just refuse to win one the easy way," said Simms, who engineered a winning rally against the Falcons for the second time Saturday and now has three comeback victories to his credit this season.

The other is against the Redskins, who may be the Bucs' first-round playoff opponent. The first meeting between those teams ended with Mike Alstott running in a 2-point conversion that gave the Bucs a 36-35 last-second victory. "You don't think you'll ever go through a game as exciting as that Redskins game was, but then you have this one and this one tops it," said Simms, who believes games like Saturday's will help the Bucs greatly in the playoffs. We're battle-tested," he said. "Situations like the one we found ourselves in today have us ready for anything. I don't think we're intimidated by anything. For whatever reason, if we need a touchdown to win the game, we get it."

The Bucs needed a touchdown just to stay in the game Saturday. They got it when Cadillac Williams polished off an 11-play drive by running for 6 yards and a touchdown on fourth-and-inches with 3:53 left in regulation. Williams, who became the first Buc since Warrick Dunn and the first rookie since Errict Rhett to rush for 1,000 yards earlier in the game, finished his day with 150 rushing yards on 31 carries. "He's carrying us right now," said Simms, whose team was carried by players other than Williams on Saturday.

Though he threw two picks, Simms also threw two touchdown passes and racked up 285 yards through the air against the Falcons. His favorite targets were Galloway and rookie tight end Alex Smith, both of whom caught eight passes. Smith was coming off a difficult week, one in which he said he played poorly in every phase of the game against New England and thus became a target for Gruden's constructive criticism. "He was the whipping boy this week," Gruden said of Smith. "We got on him pretty good and to his credit he responded. So did a lot of other guys. To be honest with you, I don't think I've ever seen this kind of resolve from a team in my life."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 25 December 2005