To be sure, the situation was dire.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had already played the first nine games of their 37th season, and never in team history had they come back to win after the opposing team took a double-digit lead with six minutes or less to play. That was exactly the situation the Buccaneers faced on Sunday in Charlotte after Cam Newton's 29-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell made it 21-10 in the home team's favor with exactly six minutes left in regulation.
At the very least, the Bucs needed two more possessions, and both had to produce points. The bare minimum to continue playing was a field goal and a touchdown followed by a two-point conversion. Stunningly, they got it. Dallas Clark's 15-yard touchdown catch 4:20 into overtime won the game, but the most incredible play of the comeback was likely Josh Freeman's 24-yard dart to Vincent Jackson in the back middle of the end zone, between three defenders, with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Freeman put the ball in what was probably the only place it could be caught, and it still required an amazing amount of concentration on Jackson's part to pluck it out of the air at helmet level and hold on as he dragged his feet inbounds and fought off linebacker Luke Kuechly's attempt to dislodge it. It was an unforgettable effort by Jackson, but not something he had been saving up for the right moment.
"It's not about that situation happening and I was able to just 'turn it on,'" he said. "It's everything that we do, since we've been working out here, through training camp and everything, all those repetitions – Josh knowing where to put the ball; us studying the defense; knowing the kind of look we're going to get; knowing that linebacker will probably be running underneath without knowing where the ball is. He put it in a great spot, and for me it's just trusting in my training and trying to make a great play."
Jackson had 41 of his 94 yards on the day on that drive, and the Bucs as a whole did a lot more in the last 10 minutes of game play than they did in the first 54. After taking an early 10-0 lead on a pair of very short fourth-quarter drives, Tampa Bay failed to score again until after LaFell's seemingly-clinching touchdown. Even when they got close, as on the drive right before LaFell's score, miscues would thwart them, as it did when rookie Doug Martin fumbled as he crossed the goal line on that possession.
But these 2012 Bucs aren't cowed by adversity because they believe they are prepared for any situation.
"You look at a game like that yesterday, especially when things offensively you're kind of sputtering, not exactly going our way, we couldn't get a rhythm…and no one panicked," said Jackson. "No one's coming on the sideline pointing fingers. No one's hitting the red button. We just continue to get back together, regroup, get with our coaches, look at the pictures, make adjustments and get ready for the next drive. As long as we continue to do that and believe in what we've been working so hard at, we'll get the result we want."
Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood started that game-tying drive with an 18-yard catch over the middle that also drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness flag on linebacker Thomas Davis. Underwood noticed the same sense of calm on the Bucs' sideline throughout the game.
"It was just guys coming together, not panicking," he said. "We huddled on the sideline. As the game was going, we didn't get too high, didn't get too low and just kept our composure. We put some drives together and were fortunate enough to win the game."
The game wasn't over after Jackson's amazing catch and subsequent two-point conversion that forged a 21-21 tie. Clark, who finally ended it with a spinning, toe-tapping catch by the left pylon on an out-and-up route, said the Bucs remained even and loose as the game went into overtime, and that was evident in the methodical nature of the last drive. While the Jackson and Clark catches were the biggest moments, Clark points out that Martin did a lot of the work on the ground in overtime, and those plays involved a very coordinated effort of 11 men.
"I think we did a good job of just staying calm and understanding what we had to do," he said. "We just knew exactly what we had to do. It was just a great demonstration of everyone being focused and just doing their jobs. Those runs…we didn't even get down there passing the ball. It was a phenomenal display of guys just really being focused, putting the situation and everything behind them and just doing their jobs."
Again, the Buccaneers had never in franchise history come back after going down by 10 or more points that late in a game. The various players in the saga almost surely weren't aware of that at the time, but it likely wouldn't have bothered them if they did know. That's because they were confident that they had prepared for just such an eventuality.
"For us, it's a reality," said Jackson. "It's not something where we're thinking, 'Ah, maybe we'll be in that situation.' No, it's something we expect to be in each and every week. Would we love to win games by 14, 21 points? Of course you would. But it's not something you hope for. You prepare for the worst and you'll be ready for anything."