K Matt Bryant is congratulated by punter and holder Josh Bidwell after Bryant's game-winning kick on Sunday
It was third-and-10 at the Atlanta 34, one minute left in the ballgame, and 70,000 people inside the Georgia Dome were willing the Falcons to stop Cadillac Williams.
Make that 70,001. Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Matt Bryant, Williams' teammate wouldn't have been too sorry to see the rookie running back stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
Now, don't get the wrong idea. Bryant isn't a bad teammate; quite the contrary, if you listen to a locker room that's thrilled to have an automatic three-point shooter on hand once again. He was as thrilled as anyone by Williams' 116-yard performance on Sunday and he didn't exactly mind the extra cushion that Williams gave him with a clutch eight-yard run against a stacked Falcons front. It's just that Bryant was looking forward to the opportunity to prove that distance was no issue for him when it came time to make the clutch kick.
See, a 45-yarder to win a key division game on the road is nice. A 53-yarder in the same situation is a kick that would be burned into a lot of memories.
"I was kind of looking forward to kicking that 52 or 53-yarder, or whatever it was going to be," said Bryant. "We were well within range [before Williams' run]. It was no big deal. That's one thing we need to get out of people's head – my leg strength. My ability to kick over 53 yards is there. I wish I had a chance to let everybody see that.
"But he got us a little closer and it just made it a little bit easier. This team came out and did what we had to do when we had to do it, and that's what counts."
Bryant certainly delivered when the Bucs needed him. He made all three of his field goal tries on Sunday in the Bucs' 30-27 win at Atlanta, including two 45-yard shots that would have been good from 50. The second of those came after Williams' eight-yard run, which in turn came after a Michael Vick fumble forced by Derrick Brooks and recovered by Shelton Quarles. Quarles fell on the loose ball at the Atlanta 34, and Bryant knew the Bucs were already in range to win the game.
He had no doubt he would make the game-winning kick. He wants his teammates to feel the same way.
"It's good to be able to get other guys' confidence up," said Bryant. "I'm confident. I've been confident since I was seven years old. To be able to get their confidence up, to know that if we get down into a certain range we're not going to go away empty-handed, that helps the team. At least I hope it does. That's big, to be able to go out there on the field and know that 52 other guys and the staff along with it, the ownership, the fans can breathe a little easier whenever I go out there."
That is exactly the way the Bucs feel and, boy, does it feel good. After two years of place-kicking struggles as the previously automatic Martin Gramatica lost his touch, the Buccaneers are once again grinning when their kicker runs onto the field, rather than gritting their teeth. Williams wasn't around to witness the Bucs finish last in the league in field goal accuracy for two straight years, but he's as happy as anyone to have Bryant waiting in the wings with the game on the line.
"Matt – what can you say about that guy?" asked Williams. "To have all that pressure on him and to go out there and kick that field goal – you've got to love that guy."
The Bucs love what Bryant has done this year. He has made 14 of his 16 field goal attempts this season, which is no small factor in the team's 3-1 record in games decided by three points or less. He missed a 52-yarder at San Francisco but has been nearly automatic – eight of nine – in the 40 to 49-yard range in which NFL kickers earn their paychecks.
Kicks in the 30 to 39-yard range seem like a given in an NFL that features a lot of very accurate kickers, and kicks beyond 50 yards seem like a bonus. It's those kicks in the forties that lead to white knuckles on the sideline. The Bucs are learning to relax when Bryant is lining up a kick in that category.
"He's been clutch since camp," said quarterback Chris Simms. "I knew that once we were inside of a 50 yard field goal that it was automatic."
Bryant made believers out of a lot of Buccaneers during training camp at Disney this summer. He and young hopeful Todd France waged a spirited battle for Tampa Bay's open kicking job, both kickers proving to be more than reliable. On one memorable afternoon in Orlando's sweltering heat, Bryant and France were challenged to make a series of six kicks from 43 to 47 yards out. If they made them all, the team would get an extra hour before curfew that night, a coveted prize during camp.
They combined to make their first five kicks, but France pulled a 45-yarder to the left on the final try. Bryant seized the moment, asking Gruden for a double-or-nothing try from 55 yards out. Gruden acquiesced and Bryant nailed that pressure kick. The thing is, it didn't feel like a pressure kick to the 30-year-old Texan, any more than Sunday's kick in the Georgia Dome did.
"Basically, it's just another kick," Bryant claimed on Sunday. "I know that's hard to believe and all, but I try to approach every kick the same.
"It's one of those deals where I've done this for so long. You practice the game-winning kick from the time you're five years old. The big thing I have to remind myself – I think Peyton Manning said it once – is the only time you feel pressure is when you're not prepared. That's the feeling you get when you're warming up. I've been preparing for this for a long time, so the pressure is not there because I already knew I was going to make it."
The Bucs are starting to get the same feeling on their sideline. Get in range, and Bryant is going to get the three points. He has made 87.5% of his field goal tries this year which, if maintained, would be a new single-season record for the franchise. Not one of those 16 tries has been in the 18 to 29-yard "gimme" range, either.
In fact, after two heart-stopping wins over Washington and Atlanta, the Bucs are starting to believe they can come up with any play they need at the end of a tight game. Williams' eight-yard run, Brooks' forced fumble and the 71-yard touchdown drive that came a few minutes earlier were evidence of that.
"That's two great games, and when we've had to do it at the end, we've done it," said Bryant. "We've got a lot of confidence knowing that when we get in that pressure situation at the end, we can do it. It's no big deal. Just go out there and do our job."