What a gift!
'Tis the season to exchange gifts. But nobody at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday had ever seen anything quite like this. The Bucs beat the Falcons 27-24 on Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining in overtime.

But before that, the teams were in the giving spirit. Bucs receiver Edell Shepherd fumbled the overtime kickoff. Gift. Then Falcons kicker Todd Peterson's 28-yard field goal was blocked by defensive end Dewayne White. Package for Mr. Bryant. But a low snap by Dave Moore led to the Bucs kicker shanking a 27-yarder 3:23 later. In the end, at least nobody left with a tie for Christmas. "We were trying to get gifts," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. "What kind of gift is that? (A tie is) not what we were playing for. We got what we deserved."

Actually, the Bucs can get much more than that. By eliminating the Falcons from postseason contention, the Bucs (10-5) can clinch the NFC South and a home playoff game with a win Jan.1 against the Saints thanks, in part, to the Cowboys' 24-20 win at Carolina. A Tampa Bay win over the Saints coupled with two losses by the Bears give the Bucs a first-round bye. "That's what you play for. This is everything right here," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "Going to Disney World in Orlando (for training camp), that (Game) 16 you're going to be playing the New Orleans Saints for a division (title), you couldn't write a script better than that. Everything's out there. And you've got Christmas."

The player who made it merry for Bucs fans was rookie Cadillac Williams, who rushed for 150 yards to surpass 1,000 for the season, including a 6-yard touchdown that tied the score at 24 with 25 seconds left in regulation. Chris Simms passed for 285 yards and two touchdowns, going 6-for-8 for 71 yards in overtime with two spikes to stop the clock the only incompletions. The Bucs' winning drive began with 54 seconds left at the Falcons 49 following Mark Jones' 28-yard punt return. Simms threw 15 yards to rookie Alex Smith and 11 to Anthony Becht to get within Bryant's range.

When the ball sailed through the uprights, the Bucs were a mixture of exuberation and exhaustion. "I was so caught up in the game, with 15 seconds to go, I'm telling (teammateChris) Hovan, "Don't get excited. We've still got to go back out there,"' linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That's how much I was into the game. Hovan looked at me and said, "What?' He said, "Brooks, it's overtime; game over!' I said, "You're right."'

After the game, Jon Gruden reached into the bleachers in the south end zone to slap hands and wish everyone a merry Christmas. "I have to keep reminding myself that the game is officially over," Gruden said wearily. "This was a real gut check."

Nobody's stomach probably hurt worse than Shepherd's. After watching the Bucs tie the score on fourth and 1, he looked to be the grinch by fumbling away the overtime kickoff just seconds after the public address announcer gave the score of the Carolina game. Shepherd couldn't bear to watch Peterson's attempt, which looked low, was blocked by White and scooped up by Kelly. "It was a long 15 minutes (of overtime), but the team got my back. And that's what this game is all about," Shepherd said.

White said there was a feeling on the sideline that the game wasn't over. "It was scary," White said. "But we knew, three stops, when they try the field goal, we'll get another opportunity to try to block it. Because we came close a couple times, that's in the back of your mind. Okay, this time we've got to push harder, jump higher and do whatever it takes. Either I jumped real high or the kick was low because I had a lot of space on my arm to block it."

Moore, who snapped the ball low on the tying extra point, practically bounced it to holder Josh Bidwell on Bryant's miss in overtime. "I was happy to get another opportunity at the end to help win it and not leave with such a bad taste in my mouth," Moore said. "Still, there's no excuse."

Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who passed for 161 yards and two touchdowns but was sacked four times and lost a fumble, had few explanations. "I'm drained," Vick said. "I would've never thought things would've gone the way they've gone this season."

Certainly, for nearly four hours Saturday, it was exhilarating and excruciating, like last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve. "I was talking to somebody on the sideline saying the Super Bowl game wasn't this intense," Kelly said. "It was fun. It was fun to come out on top. That makes it even better."

Joyful and triumphant.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 25 December 2005