TAMPA, Fla. -- In a division that no team seems to want to win, a four-franchise subset in which fortunes and emotions seem to swing disparately from one snap to another, Saturday afternoon's game here represented a sort of NFC South microcosm for 2005.
Heck, forget winning the NFC South. For much of the Bucs-Falcons matchup, it seemed no one wanted to even win the game.
"I don't know if I've ever played in a game where things went back and forth so much," said Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, who marshaled his team to a 27-24 overtime victory culminated by Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal with only 15 seconds remaining in the extra 15 minutes. "I mean, one minute, you're thinking, 'OK, we're going to win!' And then something would go wrong and it was, 'I can't believe we're going to lose the thing!' It's kind of been like that all season, I suppose, for us. The one positive thing you can say is that this team is certainly battle-tested."
Which might explain how the Bucs eventually prevailed in Saturday's screwy skirmish, a contest that included more plot twists than an O. Henry short story, and during which it appeared someone would suffer a fatal gaffe and essentially give the game away.
Truth be told, there were more pratfalls that one might witness in a classic 1950s sitcom (even though they didn't refer to them, of course, as "sitcoms" then), and enough botched opportunities for the clever folks at NFL Films to consider marketing the video evidence of what transpired at Raymond James Stadium as one of those "football follies" offerings. Or, perhaps more mercifully, to burn the celluloid documentation.
Give the Bucs, though, credit for this: In addition to taking full advantage of Atlanta's critical failures, most notably a blocked 28-yard field goal attempt less than two minutes into overtime, they actually did some positive things to win the game, rather than simply having it handed to them.
In the end, Bryant's field goal not only won the game, but also put the surprising Bucs in position to claim their first NFC South title since 2002, when Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII. At 10-5, the Bucs are tied with schizophrenic Carolina, which blew an opportunity to control the division by losing at home to Dallas. With a key tiebreaker edge over the Panthers because of a superior division record, Tampa Bay will clinch the NFC South with a victory at home over the Saints next Sunday.
How much resistance might the displaced New Orleans-San Antonio-Baton Rouge Saints offer in the regular-season finale. Uh, let's put it this way: The Saints lost to the Detroit Lions on Saturday. 'Nuff said, right?
The Falcons, who advanced to the NFC championship game in 2004 and were viewed as a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season, lost for the fifth time in seven games and were eliminated from playoff contention. If the Falcons lose at home to Carolina on New Year's Day, they would finish 8-8 and extend one of the NFL's most remarkably futile marks -- of never having consecutive winning seasons.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week that not making the playoffs might not necessarily be viewed as a failure, but that sentiment didn't fly too well in Atlanta's locker room following the latest disappointing defeat. "We need to re-evaluate a lot of things around here," quarterback Michael Vick said.
Falcons coach Jim Mora, who was on a cell phone with team officials during the overtime attempting to decipher how a tie would affect his team's playoff status, suffered a bit of a meltdown during his postgame radio segment. Asked why he punted on fourth-and-2 in overtime, with the Falcons' postseason aspirations barely a flicker at that juncture, Mora abruptly ended the interview.
Fortunately for the Bucs, a team very few pundits felt were viable contenders in the NFC South after having gone 12-20 in the two seasons following their Super Bowl title, Simms had very few meltdowns Saturday. And fortunately for Simms, as the rest of his divisional foes looked like a bunch of broken-down old jalopies over the weekend, he was driving a shiny, new Cadillac.
Tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who all but clinched rookie of the year honors Saturday, carried 31 times for 150 yards and one touchdown. He now has a Bucs rookie record 1,097 rushing yards, and his midseason slump, during which he missed two contests with injuries and rushed for only 82 yards in four outings, is a distant memory.
"I'm ready to roll, man, so just give it to me," said Williams, who surpassed 100 yards for the sixth time this season. "I feel fresh. The stuff that happened earlier in the year, it's all over now, and I feel really good. It's a great way to get ready for the playoffs. I know I'm a rookie and all, and this is new to me, but I've played football long enough to know this is the time of year you want to be peaking. We're definitely growing as a team."
No Bucs player has accelerated the learning curve quite as much as Simms, who has experienced some roller-coaster moments since replacing the injured Brian Griese as the starter but continues to command the confidence of teammates.
The three-year veteran completed 29 of 42 passes for a career-best 285 yards, with two touchdown passes, two interceptions and a passer rating of 83.9. Both interceptions came on plays where he was hit by Atlanta left defensive end Patrick Kerney, who whipped Bucs left tackle Kenyatta Walker repeatedly. Both hits led to Atlanta scores.
But in the overtime, Simms was virtually error-free and pretty well protected, and he took his team 26 yards in five plays to set up Bryant's game-winning field goal. If that was the most significant drive of the day, it was hardly the longest and certainly not the most crucial.
With only 4:18 remaining in regulation and the Bucs trailing 24-17, Simms engineered a gutsy, 11-play, 65-yard march which ended in Williams' 6-yard touchdown run over the left side on fourth-and-goal. That tied the score with 25 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. On the previous possession, Simms took the Bucs 62 yards in nine snaps for a field goal that tied the game at that point.
Simms hooked up with nine different receivers, four of whom had three catches or more, and converted some crucial third-down chances. As a result, the Tampa Bay offense produced 30 first downs and 444 yards, both season highs, although the extra period had something to do with those numbers, as well.
"But give [Simms] a lot of credit because, as everyone saw today, his poise is starting to really come through," said wide receiver Joey Galloway, who had eight catches for 97 yards. "You don't see him making many mistakes now at all."
The same could hardly be said for two teams who entered the game scratching for their playoffs lives.
There were four turnovers in the game, the most notable of which was a lost fumble by Bucs return man Edell Shepherd on the opening kickoff of overtime. Both quarterbacks were under consistent pressure and, in addition to the combined four sacks they took, the two absorbed more than a dozen other hits apiece. Drives turned on penalties, on dropped passes, on missed blocks. As for the kicking game, well, both specials teams coaches will spend Christmas Day trying to analyze the several bleak moments.
Poised to win the game after Sheppard's overtime-opening fumble, Atlanta kicker Todd Peterson, who had missed just one of his previous 23 field-goal tries all season, had a 28-yard chip shot blocked by Bucs backup defensive end Dewayne White. The Bucs then drove 48 yards on 10 plays, mostly behind Williams' off-tackle forays, to set up a 27-yard Bryant try, which sailed badly wide to the left.
On that kick, placement snapper Dave Moore, one of the best in the NFL, basically rolled the ball back to holder Josh Bidwell. For the day, Moore had two errant snaps, a rarity for him, and luckily he dodged a bullet, as did the Bucs in general.
With Carolina's loss to the Cowboys already posted on the scoreboard, Bucs players knew what was on the line, and are certainly cognizant of what they will be playing for next Sunday against the Saints. In training camp, this was a confident team, one whose veteran players predicted a successful season, even when some so-called "experts" suggested Tampa Bay might be the worst team in the division.
"But we just keep clawing away," said Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber. "And because we do, because we're always fighting, look at where it's gotten us. This is a division that's just been crazy all year. One week it looks like a team has the division in its hands and then something happens to change it. I mean, no way did I think Carolina could lose today to the Cowboys, but it happened.
"The good thing about us is that with all the ups and downs, we take nothing for granted. Every game is close, it seems, and I'd love to win a 28-0 game some week. But maybe this is our identity and, if it is, so be it. I'll definitely take it."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.