Over the next few weeks, I'm joining Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith in posting a series of top-five lists on a variety of Buccaneer-related topics. But there's a twist: The list-maker doesn't get to decide the list topic.
Rather, to start each week Scott is going to give me a topic for which I must produce my version of a top five. After that is complete, he will (of course) follow with his opinions on my choices, and then we'll present it to you. Later each week, as in now, we're reversing the process and I'm the one providing Scott with a topic, along with some bantering commentary of my own.
That's the premise; Scott calls it "Give Me Five," and I'm about to continue it for this week by giving him a topic.
Today's Topic: The top five most exciting regular-season wins over the last two decades.
Given that Scott has been there for every Bucs game the last 20 years (and then some), I figured he'd be the perfect authority to speak on the most exciting wins the franchise has seen in the more recent past. After all, just because we write about the team doesn't mean we're immune to the excitement or the nail-biting rollercoaster of emotions that sometimes comes with close contests. There may be no cheering in the press box, but I've personally witnessed Scott having to bite his tongue or silently pump his fist in the air. And I may have myself added a foot stomp or two right along with him the last couple seasons.
Now, the number one win since 2000 is obviously the Bucs Super Bowl victory in 2003. There's also the "Shutting Down the Vet" game that preceded it, which Scott and Rondé Barber re-lived this week. So, in an effort to not make this full of victorious postseason contests, I'm qualifying this list as most exciting regular season wins.
Let's see what you got, Scott! (Hey, that rhymed.)
Scott Smith: What I've got is some tough choices ahead. We're talking about 320 games to choose from. Well, not 320, because Carmen has specified that these need to be wins, which eliminates thrilling losses like the infamous Monday-nighter against the Colts in 2003. I assigned one other parameter: They had to be close games. The 45-17 demolition of the Eagles in Philly in 2015, for example, was a blast to watch but it didn't have a lot of drama.
And before I begin, here are a couple of honorable mentions that just missed the list, so that you don't think I'm crazy for omitting your personal favorite:
- The 48-40 shootout in New Orleans to open the 2018 season
- The 55-40 win in L.A. over the Rams last year, the highest-scoring game in team history
- The 2012 overtime win at Carolina that included Vincent Jackson's amazing game-tying catch
- The Martin Gramatica special in Carolina during the 2002 Super Bowl season
- The wild upset of Green Bay in Josh Freeman's first start in 2009
- The second revenge win over the Rams in St. Louis in 2001, with Warrick Dunn's late touchdown
Okay, now here we go.
5. Buccaneers 30, Chiefs 27 (OT), at Arrowhead Stadium, Nov. 2, 2008
This is the greatest comeback in franchise history, as the Buccaneers erased a 21-point deficit in the second of three overtime games they would play in that strange '08 season.
In this one, the Buccaneers came in with a 5-3 record but they had lost three of their first four road games, all by very narrow margins. This seemed like a good opportunity to reverse that trend, as the Chiefs were 1-6 at the time and were being piloted by the not-exactly-terrifying Tyler Thigpen at quarterback. But there was still a huge crowd at Arrowhead Stadium, Thigpen was up to the challenge on this day and the Chiefs were playing like they had nothing to lose.
After Thigpen directed a 69-yard touchdown drive to start the game, Earnest Graham fumbled on the Bucs' first play from scrimmage and the home team turned that into another score. Then the Chiefs got tricky, snapping the ball directly to running back Jamaal Charles, who then gave it to wide receiver Mark Bradley, who promptly threw a 37-yard touchdown to Thigpen, who was all alone behind the defense.
Down 24-3, the Bucs actually started their comeback right before halftime when Pro Bowl-bound rookie return man Clifton Smith ran a kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown. Matt Bryant tacked on a 43-yard field goal as the clock expired in the second quarter. Nothing happened in the third quarter, which was good news for the Chiefs, but then the game turned on a pair of consecutive fumbles. Smith coughed it up on one of his 12 offensive touchdowns of the entire season, killing a drive that had reached Kansas City's 13, but Charles gave it right back on the next snap. Graham then got his redemption and the Bucs matched the Chiefs trick play-for-trick play when the running back threw a three-yard option pass to Alex Smith for the score. The Bucs went for two but failed, meaning they were facing an eight-point deficit after the Chiefs added a field goal (by future Buc Connor Barth, by the way).
That was still the score when the Bucs faced a first-and-15 at the Kansas City 24 with 25 seconds remaining, but Jeff Garcia hit Antonio Bryant on a 24-yard touchdown pass and then found Smith to complete the conversion and the eight-point game-tying play. The Bucs won the overtime coin toss and Garcia immediately hit Michael Clayton for 29 yards to start a drive that ended in Bryant's 34-yard game-winner.
4. Buccaneers 23, Eagles 21, at Raymond James Stadium, Oct. 22, 2006
Speaking of Matt Bryant, this is the game that prompted Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio to declare October 23 as "Matt Bryant Day." That was, of course, in response to Bryant's incredible 62-yard game-winning field goal, which is clearly one of the best and most exciting game-ending plays in franchise history. At the time, it was also the third-longest game-winning field goal in league annals.
There was plenty of drama leading up to that amazing moment, however. In fact, it's a testament to what a feat that Bryant's kick was that this game is not remembered as the "Rondé Barber Game." All that Barber did, after all, was tie an NFL record with two pick-sixes in one game. Reprising his role as Donovan McNabb's personal boogeyman, Barber got the scoring started early in the second quarter with an interception and a 37-yard sprint to the end zone. Barber had also ended Philadelphia's first drive of the day by forcing a fumble by wide receiver Jason Avant, which was recovered by Torrie Cox at the Bucs' 19.
Tampa Bay needed Barber's heroics because Bruce Gradkowski and the Bucs' offense couldn't get anything going for most of the afternoon. In fact, by game's end the Eagles had a total-yardage edge of 506 to 196. That difference of 310 yards is the sixth-most any team has ever overcome to win an NFL game, and no team since the Bucs in 2006 has won in such a circumstance.
Of course, that means there were some stretches of that game that weren't particularly exciting for the home crowd, though things looked good midway through the third quarter when Barber struck again. This time he jumped a sideline pass intended for Greg Lewis and returned it 66 yards to make the score 17-0. That's when McNabb got hot and trimmed the lead to three points with consecutive touchdown drives at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Bryant tacked on a 44-yard field goal with three minutes remaining but that was enough time left to allow McNabb to get the ball close to midfield with a minute left.
The Bucs then appeared to be destined for defeat when the defense melted down on a short pass to Brian Westbrook that the Eagles back caught and began weaving his way downfield. Fifty-two yards later, he was in the end zone and the Bucs were trailing by one point with 27 seconds left. Gradkowski had his best stretch of the game at just the right time, completing an 11-yard pass to Michael Clayton and, after a timeout, scrambling for nine yards to the Philadelphia 44. After one more pas attempt with 10 seconds left fell incomplete, the Bucs had no other choice but to send Bryant out to try the longest field goal of his career. The rest is history.
3. Buccaneers 27, Falcons 24 (OT), at Raymond James Stadium, Dec. 24, 2005
There was a lot on the line when the division-rival Falcons came to Tampa on Christmas Eve day in 2005. After 15 weeks, the NFC South standings had Carolina at the top with a 10-4 record (though the Bucs had secured a critical win in Charlotte just two weeks early), followed by Tampa Bay at 9-5 and Atlanta at 8-6. A loss to the visiting Falcons could have ended the Bucs' division title hopes and actually would have put them in a precarious position for a Wild Card berth heading into the last week of the season. A win, on the other hand, would all but eliminate Atlanta and give the Bucs a shot at winning the division. As it turned out, Carolina's loss to Dallas on that same afternoon made that a possibility.
The Bucs' offense generated 444 yards of offense and 30 first downs on the day but had trouble on third downs and also committed three turnovers. That turned the game into a back-and-forth affair that included three lead changes and four ties. Chris Simms threw touchdown passes to Jameel Cook and Mike Alstott in the first half but Michael Vick matched that and Todd Peterson's field goal at the end of the half sent the visitors to the locker room with a 17-14 lead.
Nobody scored in the third quarter and then Matt Bryant (who would become a Falcon four years later) came up big again with a 50-yard field goal. T.J. Duckett, who seemed to make a career out of hurting the Buccaneers, put the home team in a bad spot when he scored on a two-yard run after a 37-yard Vick-to-Michael Jenkins connection with four minutes left. That made it 24-17 in Atlanta's favor. With the time remaining, Simms used a series of short passes to get the Bucs down to Atlanta's 15 yards line, but two incompletions and a Joey Galloway catch that came up just short of the sticks, the Bucs faced an all-or-nothing fourth-and-one with 31 seconds left. They trusted their star rookie back, Cadillac Williams, with the ball and he responded by not only getting the few inches needed but also taking it all the way to the end zone to tie the game and send it to overtime.
The drama was far from over. The Buccaneers won the toss but fell immediately into a critical situation when Edell Shepherd fumbled on the opening kickoff return, with Atlanta recovering at the Bucs' 18. Two runs got the ball down to the 10 and the Falcons chose not to risk a turnover, instead breaking out Peterson to try a 27-yarder. Incredibly, defensive end Dewayne White blocked the kick to keep the Bucs' season alive. Almost as incredibly, the reliable Bryant then missed what would have been a game-winning 27-yard field goal three minutes later.
Each team got to midfield on the two ensuing drives but eventually elected to punt. Atlanta's last drive started at its 16 with less than two minutes to go, and the Falcons quickly fell into a fourth-and-two after Barber broke up a third-down pass by Vick. With a minute left, the Falcons essentially could choose to go for it and potentially hand the win to the Bucs if they failed or punt and play for a tie. At that point, even the Atlanta sideline wasn't sure what a tie would do to their playoff hopes. The Falcons chose to punt and Mark Jones returned it 28 yards, just across midfield. Two Simms completions got the ball down to the 23 and Bryan was true this time from 41 yards. The Bucs would then beat New Orleans in Week 17 and win the division on a tiebreaker over the Panthers.
2. Buccaneers 36, Redskins 35, at Raymond James Stadium, Nov. 13, 2005
The Buccaneers would not have been in position to battle for the division title at the end of the 2005 season if this Week 10 game against Washington had slipped away. And while Bryant's 62-yard field goal the next year is one of the best plays ever to finish a Buccaneers game, this shootout win featured one of the best and boldest end-game decisions in franchise history.
The game started in a familiar way, with Mike Alstott scoring on two short runs in the first quarter-and-a-half to stake the home team to a 14-3 lead. Both of Alstott's touchdowns were the results of defensive takeaways, first an interception by Juran Bolden and then a strip-sack by Simeon Rice, who also intercepted Mark Brunell early in the second quarter. A 94-yard kickoff return by Washington's Ladell Betts pulled the visitors close but Simms countered with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway. The score was 21-13 in the Bucs' favor at halftime.
Cadillac Williams fumbled on the first play of the second half, leading to a quick Brunell touchdown pass, and a 42-yard catch by Santana Moss minutes later set up another scoring pass to Betts, giving Washington its first lead of the game, 28-21. Simms hit Shepherd for a 46-yard gain down to the Washington seven on the next drive, leading to Ike Hilliard's four-yard TD catch and another tie game later in the third quarter.
Washington took the lead back seven minutes into the fourth period on a 16-play drive that included a successful fourth-down conversion at the Bucs' 35. Clinton Portis ran around right end for an eight-yard touchdown and a 35-28 lead. The Buccaneers' next drive got all the way down to the Washington 10 thanks to three Galloway catches but when it got to fourth-and-goal at the 12, Head Coach Jon Gruden eschewed the field goal with just under four minutes left. Simms tried to hit Galloway again but the pass was broken up.
Thanks to a final timeout, a big third-and-two stop of Portis by Derrick Brooks and the two-minute warning, Tampa Bay was able to get the ball back one last time with 1:52 left. After short completions to Galloway and Shepherd, Simms spiked the ball to stop the clock at 1:05 and the ball on the Washington 30. On the next play, Simms threw deep down the middle of the field to Shepherd, who made a diving catch as he was crossing the goal line. At that point, a near-certain extra point would likely send the game to overtime.
And, in fact, Gruden first sent out his kicking team to get the tie. Washington defenders responded by getting ultra-aggressive, trying to time their jump across the line with the snap. The first such attempt resulted in a delay-of-game penalty on LaVar Arrington, and Gruden elected to take the five-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff and try the extra point again. This time, cornerback Walt Harris started early and got around the end to block Bryant's kick, but the play was erased with the offside flag on Harris.
Gruden had seen enough. This time he took the yard that the penalty would give his team, with the ball moving to the one-yard line. He pulled Bryant off the field and sent in his offense, with Alstott in the backfield. There were more than 65,000 fans in the Raymond James Stadium fan and almost all of them could predict what was coming next. The only question is which direction Alstott would run. In this case he took the handoff over right guard, absorbing and spinning off a hit well before the goal line. With his second effort lunge he was able to extend the nose of the ball over the plane of the goal line for the winning two points. The play was reviewed and upheld and the Buccaneers got their one-point win.
1. Buccaneers 38, Rams 35, at Raymond James Stadium, Dec. 18, 2000
I am fortunate that Carmen set the parameters of this exercise at the most exciting games of the last 20 years, because that means it just makes it back to the 2000 campaign. It would have been a shame to do this list and not be able to include what most consider the most thrilling regular-season game in franchise history.
This was very much a revenge game, and it also had some high stakes of its own, not to mention a national Monday Night Football audience. Eleven months early, the Rams had denied the Buccaneers their first Super Bowl berth in a classic NFC Championship Game, scoring late in the fourth quarter for an 11-6 decision. Tampa Bay's swarming defense had held "The Greatest Show on Turf" offense to about a third of its usual scoring average but couldn't quite hold on for the victory in St. Louis. The Rams and Kurt Warner went on to win the Super Bowl over Tennessee.
The two teams met again the following December in Tampa and this time the game played out in St. Louis style. Incredibly, Shaun King and the Buccaneers' offense was able to match the high-flying Rams score for score. In particular, dueling running backs Marshall Faulk and Warrick Dunn traded blows, with Faulk collecting four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) and Dunn countering with three scores and 198 yards from scrimmage. The Bucs' offense generated 446 total yards of offense and 27 first downs to 388 and 19 for St. Louis.
Faulk's second touchdown early in the second quarter gave the visitors a 14-10 lead but King and Keyshawn Johnson hooked up on touchdown passes twice in the same period and the Buccaneers were able to take a 24-14 advantage into halftime. It stayed that way almost until the end of the third quarter, thanks in part to a Damien Robinson interception. Warner and Faulk managed to pull back within three points with 27 seconds left in the period on a 27-yard touchdown hook-up, but the Bucs had it back to 10 before the fourth quarter started. That's because Karl Williams returned the ensuing kickoff almost to midfield and Dunn ripped off a 52-yard scoring run on the very next play.
Faulk scored again four minutes into the final period but King countered with a drive that included a 30-yard Jacquez Green catch and a 21-yard Dunn run down to the one-yard line. However, disaster struck when Dexter McCleon intercepted King's pass attempt to Johnson on third-and-goal. Just two plays later, Warner hit Torry Holt on a 72-yard touchdown pass that gave St. Louis a 35-31 lead with five minutes to play. A pair of punts followed, ending in the Bucs getting one last shot with 2:22 left and the ball at their own 20.
All of which brings us to one of the most iconic single plays in Buccaneers history. After one first down and an incompletion, the Bucs faced second-and-10 at their own 35. Dunn lined up eight yards deep behind King, who was under center. At the snap, Dunn ran out to his right as King backpedaled and then turned to hit him with a quick pass; the play was officially deemed a run because the pass did not go forward. Unfortunately for Dunn, future Buccaneer Kevin Carter had read the play instantly and was on him as soon as he caught the ball. Dunn tried to get away with a spin move and managed not to go down but Carter still had a grasp on his jersey, which spun the Buccaneer back around to where he was facing King, 14 yards deep in the backfield.
King held his hand up for the ball and Dunn just got a pitch off to him before Carter dragged him down. King started to his left with two other Rams in pursuit but then reversed field and got around the right end, sprinting all the way down to midfield. It was a 29-yard run by King after the pitch but only a 15-yard gain overall. However, linebacker Mike Jones – he of the famous game-saving tackle in the Super Bowl – hit King late after he was out of bounds, tacking on another 15 penalty yards.
Jacquez Green just missed hauling in a touchdown pass with 1:21 left, and Keyshawn Johnson couldn't hold on to a sliding catch on third-and-four on the next play. King saved the day again with a six-yard scramble, just getting across the line after he was tripped from behind by London Fletcher, then with a minute left hit Reidel Anthony on a 22-yard completion down to the Rams' one-yard line. After Anthony's impressive spinning catch, King tried to hit Dave Moore on first down but it was tipped away. On second-and-goal, King pitched back to Dunn, who caught the ball at the eight and found a seam between blockers down to the three, from where he launched himself over a defender and all the way to the end zone.
The Bucs had a three-point lead with only 48 seconds left, but even then it wasn't over. On the Rams' first play of the next drive, Warner found Isaac Bruce open cutting deep across the field on what looked like it would be a huge play. Incredibly, Bruce dropped it. Warner tried to hit Holt deep on the next play but John Lynch picked it off to end the most exciting regular-season game in Buccaneers history.
The Bucs needed the win to stay in the thick of the playoff race, and they would end up with a Wild Card berth, as would the Rams.
Carmen's Thoughts: That was fun.