There are games that test your faith as a fan of your favorite football team. Then there was what transpired yesterday in Bank of America stadium. It's okay, you can admit it. When the Dougernaught allegedly fumbled at the goal line and the Panthers went 80 yds in 7 plays to take a double digit lead - you were like me and thought the Bucs' ship had been sunk.
Any thoughts of playoffs. Poof. Any hope of keeping the winning streak alive - gone in an arrogant Cam Newton pose (you're the quarterback of a 2-7 - excuse me - 2-8 team with a QB Rating of 79. Stop posing, Cam - you're not that guy anymore).
The Bucs were finished, done for - put dirt on them. Then the miraculous happened. It began with a 36 yd drive in 9 plays and a 40 yd field goal to give Tampa Bay a puncher's chance at 21-13.
Then the much maligned Bucs defense had to find a way to get the ball back. They did - but not until the Bucs exhausted all of their time outs and the two minute warning.
Josh Freeman took the field with 1:02, no timeouts left and 80 yds away from giving his team a chance.
38 yds to Tiquan Underwood (plus 15 big yards for a personal foul shot to the head). A short completion to Clark. Another hitter to V-Jax at the Carolina 24 and a spike to stop the clock with :20 seconds left.
2nd and 10 from the Carolina 24, Freeman threw a ball he shouldn't have - toward three Panther players and Vincent Jackson in the end zone. If it's not pin point accurate - the Panthers pick it off, game over - maybe season over.
It was accurate and Jackson made one of the most amazing catches we've seen in a long time.
A thrilling score - but it would be for naught if the Bucs failed to secure the 2 point conversion. A tremendous (and I mean outstanding) play action to Dynamite Doug sucked in rookie Panther MLB Luke Kuechly, giving Jackson space inside - Freeman had to be accurate - and he was - connecting for two.
When the Bucs won the toss - you had to feel it. The Bucs did, so did the Panthers after Martin snapped off 11 and 27 on the game winning drive. When Freeman connected with Dallas Clark for the game winning touchdown - there was a little disbelief in the air, wasn't there? I remember sitting in an Orlando Buffalo Wild Wings (with an impatient wifey wanting to head to Disney already) trying to take in what I just witnessed. It took a few seconds to register. The Bucs won. Somehow, someway, the Bucs won.
It was an amazing comeback - but what did we learn from it?
1. There are no ugly wins in the NFL. The Bucs played well in the first quarter, then the game turned on that pick six by Captain Munnerlyn. Carolina had the momentum throughout the next three and half quarters. The fact that the Bucs were able to get off the mat and find a way to win a game they had no business winning was impressive. The Bucs weren't the only team on upset alert. Jacksonville nearly shocked Houston. Atlanta had to overcome six turnovers to beat Arizona. Dallas got a scare at home from Cleveland. It was that kind of week in the NFL. The teams that contend for playoff spots find ways to win these types of games.
2. I think it goes without saying that the Bucs with this improbably victory are smack dab in the playoff chase. They're 6-4 with six to play. Figure they need to go at least 4-2 in this stretch to have a realistic shot. That means they need to win the games they should at home (Philly and St. Louis) then take two from the other four tougher games (Atlanta at home and away, at Denver, at New Orleans). It certainly won't be easy but they have a chance...and as a fan, you hope your team is playing meaningful football in December - the Bucs should be.
3. Speaking of the playoff chase, just a quick note - later this week we will be unveiling DLT's NFC Playoff Scenario Madness. This isn't just giving you standings folks - each week we will give you all the clinching scenarios, tell you why the Bucs are (or aren't) part of the playoff six, give you future casts of different scenarios for the Bucs if they go 6-0 or 5-1 or 4-2, etc...tell you the earliest the Bucs can clinch a playoff spot and who to root for (or against) this coming week. Look for it either Tuesday or Wednesday of every week while the Bucs remain mathematically eligible.
4. I felt bad for Doug Martin on Sunday. Not only has the Dougernaught been one of the primary reasons the Bucs are even in this position in 2012, he should have had the touchdown called in his favor. To me, there was no question he cross the goal line before the ball came loose. I don't understand what referee Bill Levy was looking at. Yes, one angle was obscured by an official coming into the picture at the wrong time but the other angle was pretty damned conclusive. You see where the ball is (over the chalk) and you see it pop out. Doug was distraught on the sidelines, believing he had cost the Bucs the game and perhaps a shot at the playoffs. I was thrilled for him that he got a chance to redeem himself in overtime and his two big runs on the game winning drive were crucial.
5. I'd be remiss if I didn't give a shout out to the defense - who played a pretty darn good game against the Panthers. Yes, they let down on that final touchdown drive by the Panthers - but in a way - you can understand the wind being taken out of their sails after that fumble at the goal line. They're still a young bunch back there. For the most part though, they kept Cam and the Panthers offense in check, holding them to 14 offensive points and 331 yds (only 234 through the air). They also stopped Cam a yard shy of a game sealing first down when they were desperate to get the ball back.
6. We got a lot of Bad Josh on Sunday. Inaccurate passes, confounding decisions and just overall terrible play. It was obvious the pressure the Panthers were putting on him was getting to him. Through the first three quarters, the offensive line was not doing it's job in pass pro. Freeman was getting drilled on nearly every throw and was reverting back to some of his school yard bad habits. In the end though - with it all on the line in the fourth quarter and overtime - Freeman had some time to throw, dialed in and was sensational. Even the best of the best have off days. Look at Matt Ryan's 5 interception performance against Arizona. Eli Manning has been terrible for the past month, as a fantasy football owner of Aaron Rodgers, I can tell you he's not putting up MVP numbers this season and don't ask a Cowboys fan about Tony Romo. Freeman had a tremendous run of five straight games of stellar football. I think we can forgive one bad performance, especially considering how he played at the end.
7. I've been on Dallas Clark all season. He's lost a step and is a shell of the player he once was but he may have come up with a season saving touchdown in overtime. Great play by Dallas getting his feet down in the endzone and keeping control of the football.
8. Carolina allegedly had their 101st consecutive sell out (or something like that). That stadium looked worse than some of the Bucs' games at the end of last season. In fact, it looked like there were a significant number of red jerseys in the stands or it may have been even more empty. If you can help fill Bank of America field, Bucs fans - you can fill Ray Jay for perhaps the biggest game of the season. You can't help your team on the couch but you can make a difference screaming your head off in the stands. We know Atlanta will have a contingent (they always do). Get out there and support your Bucs!
9. If you're surprised the Bucs struggled to win in Carolina, don't be. Despite their record, the Panthers have been in nearly every game this season and their two victories came against New Orleans and Washington, two teams that beat the Bucs on their home turf. They also had Atlanta on the ropes as well, as Matt Ryan's bunch needed a Matt Bryant last second field goal to avoid an upset at the Georgia Dome.
10. Speaking of the Falcons - it's statement week for the Bucs. Atlanta is 9-1 and its unlikely the Bucs will catch the Falcons for the NFC South title. With that said, the ATL have been ripe for the picking (no pun intended) for several weeks. The Saints got them at the Superdome, the Bucs need to hold serve at home. We said Tampa Bay needs to go 2-2 in the "hard games" to have a realistic chance at playing in the post season for the first time since 2007. This might be their best shot at Atlanta.