Men In Red Make It A Day To Remember
It would take 12 days of Christmas to explain what happened Saturday. So it wasn't manger scene. In fact, at times it was a mangy scene, a game neither side could win, not for 74 minutes and 46 seconds, anyway. It's the 30th season of Bucs football. If you watch another 30, you might not seem a game as legally insane as Saturday's. Some of the winners swore that there were moments when outlasting the Falcons was more exciting than the Super Bowl. "I mean it," Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly said.

Crazy. The craziest? "The gutsiest," defensive end Simeon Rice said.

Because, as it turned out, one team refused to lose. Or even tie. Who wants a tie for Christmas? The Bucs knew exactly what they wanted. They had no time for goats, fumbles, bad snaps and missed kicks. They had exchanged gifts with Atlanta long enough. It was Christmas Eve. And these were the men in red. "Jingle bells," Kelly said.

Bucs fans, give it up for Matt Bryant's right leg and Dewayne White's left wrist. Take Cadillac and the points over Santa's sleigh and throw the Falcons' season under the bus. Say hello to the driver's seat. There are seven shopping days until a division title. With visions of the New Orleans Saints and their golf clubs dancing in their heads, the Bucs took control of the NFC South. The team that went 12-20 the past two seasons won its 10th game of an increasingly charming comeback. A lot of breaks have come its way, but this team has kept coming.

Carolina lost. The Bucs knew it as overtime went on and on. Now a win over New Orleans next Sunday carries the South. And brings a home playoff game. Sounds strange, seeing as the Bucs haven't clinched so much as wild card yet. The win didn't do that. Nor would a loss have ended hopes.

That wasn't the point. The point is that after 3 hours, 43 minutes, after Bryant's 41-yarder made it 27-24, Jon Gruden, after reminding himself that it really was over, high-fived fans on his way to the locker room to salute the team that never gave up. "This is a different team than we've had the last couple of years," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "This team has a little something to it."

Oh, and another thing: "Craziest game I ever played in."

And that was just overtime. The Bucs tied it at 24 with 25 seconds left in regulation. No. 24, Cadillac, ran it in for six of his 150 yards. This team didn't give up. "Never," Derrick Brooks said.

Granted, this team fumbled the kickoff in overtime. Edell Shepherd's muff muffled a stadium. Bucs tight end Anthony Becht fell back on the field, arms outstretched. "No, oh, please, no," linebacker Ryan Nece thought. "I've never heard it so silent in here," linebacker Shelton Quarles said.

But there was White, with his game-saving block of an Atlanta chip-shot kick. Then again, the Bucs blew their first chance to win in overtime when Dave Moore's snap messed up Bryant, who missed left. Who was left to believe after that?

The men in red. There would be no black hats. There was White. There was the Bucs' defense, holding off Michael Vick. There was Caddy. And Alex Smith. There was Chris Simms. Out trotted Bryant one last time. They had to win this game. They kept telling themselves that. It was all there for the taking after Carolina lost. A tie bordered on rank obscenity. "A tie was a loss," Kelly said.

They never lost sight of that, not one of them, though they did forget a few things. Take Brooks. The final seconds overwhelmed him. As Bryant lined up, Brooks told nose tackle Chris Hovan to not get excited if Bryant made it. "We still got to go back out there."

Hovan stared at Brooks. "Brooks, it's overtime. Game over."

Brooks: "Oh, right."

Crazy. Matt Bryant swung his leg. And to all a good night. So said the men in red.

Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune 25 December 2005