Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 7 October 2003

There’s no way to sugarcoat this one: Monday night’s 38-35 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts was one of the most painful defeats in team history. Three weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their home opener to Carolina in overtime, 12-9, after the potential game-winning extra point was blocked. Against all odds, they suffered an even more disheartening loss on Monday night. This one was drawn-out agony, like a night spent on the rack.

After Ronde Barber’s 29-yard interception return gave the Bucs a three-touchdown lead with 5:09 left in the game, the Colts embarked on a remarkable comeback, scoring three touchdowns to gain a 35-35 tie and force overtime. Mike Vanderjagt then won the game with 3:47 left in the extra period with a 29-yard field goal that clanged off the inside of the right upright. Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, got two tries at the game-winner. His 40-yard attempt sailed wide right, but the Bucs were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Game officials called DE Simeon Rice for leaping, with the following explanation from referee Johnny Grier: “The call was leaping. Leaping is a player starting more than one yard off the line of scrimmage and running forward and landing on players. It was reported that he was running forward. He jumped and landed on his own players. The umpire (Ed Coukart) made the call.”

Jon Gruden still seemed a bit mystified by the penalty after the game, but he did not place the loss on that play. “I’m really going to look at that play, obviously, carefully,” said Gruden. “I don’t believe we were in error, at least what I could see on the field. We had numerous chances to win this game. I’m not going to cry about that one.”

The Colts also reaped the benefits of two other critical special teams plays during their comeback, an 87-yard kickoff return by Brad Pyatt after Barber’s touchdown and a successful onside kick. The meat of the comeback, however, was Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison. Those two hooked up 11 times for 176 yards and two touchdowns, including a 28-yard scoring pass that pulled the Colts within seven points and a stunning, 52-yard reception that set up the tying score. “I’d just like to congratulate the Colts (on) a great come-from-behind victory,” said Gruden. “I can only tip my hat to Manning. He made some miraculous throws and they made some incredible catches. Unfortunately, we had a guy tonight who made the big plays when he had to.”

This was a matchup of the first and sixth-ranked defenses in the NFL, but both teams racked up a huge amount of yards, with Tampa Bay barely edging the Colts overall, 457 to 455. However, most of the Bucs’ big plays came in the first half, as they built a 21-0 lead on the strength of two big plays from WR Keenan McCardell who opened the game’s scoring five minutes into the game when he caught a 74-yard touchdown pass from Brad Johnson. On the play, McCardell was matched up deep over the middle with LB Rob Morris, from whom he easily pulled away for the longest reception of his career.

Though Harrison was eventually the game’s star, it was also one of the most prolific days of McCardell’s 11-year NFL career. He became the first Buccaneer to score three touchdowns in a single game since Mike Alstott got three rushing touchdowns against Minnesota on October 28, 2001. His third touchdown, a 15-yard toe-dragger at the end of an 85-yard drive in the third quarter, gave the Bucs a 28-7 lead at the time, after Reggie Barlow had scored on a three-yard pass in the second quarter.

In between, McCardell scored on a play that was technically a defensive touchdown. S Mike Doss intercepted an overthrown pass in Indianapolis territory but, as he returned it sideways across the field, C John Wade dove to tackle Doss and knock the ball loose. The ball took one hop and aimed straight for the night’s McCardell. With no Colts between him and the end zone, McCardell ran untouched for a 57-yard touchdown. Technically, it was Tampa Bay’s first defensive score of the season. Barber’s was their second, and it appeared to end the game late in the fourth quarter. That’s when the Colts indescribable comeback began.

By the intermission, the Bucs had 239 yards of offense to the Colts’ 86 and a 12 to four edge in first downs. The Indianapolis offense under Manning and the Bucs’ top-ranked defense frequently played cat-and-mouse reaction games at the line of scrimmage, but Manning could find little in his audible playbook to stump the Bucs. At halftime, the Colts were zero for five on third-down tries.

The second half was a completely different story, as the Colts clearly made some astute halftime adjustments. Manning’s audibles to running plays worked perfectly on 19 and eight-yard runs by Ricky Williams, and the heady quarterback fooled second-year CB Tim Wansley on a pump-and-go on third-and-two for a 37-yard touchdown pass to Harrison for the Colts first score. Wansley was playing right cornerback because the Bucs lost CB Brian Kelly to a pectoral strain in the first quarter. Indianapolis also embarked on a 75-yard drive early in the fourth quarter that concluded on Ricky Williams’ one-yard touchdown run. After Barber’s touchdown, Pyatt zipped up a seam on the right side and ran nearly untouched to the 12, where he was tackled by S Jermaine Phillips. On fourth-and-one from the three, RB James Mungro ran up the middle for a touchdown to make the score 35-21.

Vanderjagt’s onside attempt then worked perfectly, as it bounced high in the air and S Idrees Bashir leaped to haul it in. Manning’s 28-yard strike to Harrison came on fourth-and-six. The Colts’ next onside attempt failed – barely – but they got the ball back with 1:41 to play at their own 15. The Bucs had one last attempt to kill the clock from near midfield, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on T Kenyatta Walker cost the Bucs 15 yards and stopped the clock just before the two-minute warning, saving the Colts precious time. Manning then quickly drove the Colts 85 yards. A roughing-the-passer penalty on DT Warren Sapp gave Indianapolis 15 yards, but Harrison’s 52-yarder down the right sideline was the critical play. Williams scored two plays later on a one-yard run.

The Bucs had one last chance to drive into field goal range, but could get no closer than the Indianapolis 43. Martin Gramatica tried a 62-yard field goal, but it was blocked. Gramatica also tried a 60-yarder at the end of the first half, this one on line but falling just a few yards short. In overtime, the Bucs won the toss and moved over midfield but eventually had to punt. They played the extra period without a whole crew of offensive players thanks to a late rash of injuries. Not available from the middle of the fourth quarter on were RB Michael Pittman (cramps), RB Aaron Stecker (knee sprain), FB Darian Barnes, (shoulder sprain), FB Mike Alstott (shoulder contusion) and WR Keyshawn Johnson (foot sprain).

After the Bucs’ punt, Manning converted three consecutive third downs with sharp passes over the middle, driving Indianapolis down to the Bucs’ 22 before Vanderjagt’s first kick. As in the Carolina game, Monday’s loss wasted some fine individual performances. McCardell finished with 106 receiving yards and former Colt TE Ken Dilger had six catches for 63 yards. Before his injury, Pittman had his second 100-yard rushing game as a Buccaneer, gaining 106 yards on 16 attempts. His first 100-yard game came in last year’s Super Bowl victory over Oakland.