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Buccaneers work overtime to defeat the Falcons

Tampa Bay seizes control of the NFC South with 27-24 overtime win in 'crazy' encounter

Buccaneers work overtime to defeat the Falcons

His teammate was lining up to try a field goal that would give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers an epic victory against a hated rival. That's when linebacker and franchise icon Derrick Brooks stopped his pacing on the sideline and served up a warning for the rest of the spent Bucs' defense.

"Don't get too excited!" Brooks shouted. "We got to go back out there!"

Curious, defensive tackle Chris Hovan turned to Brooks.

"What?" Hovan snapped. "Hey, Brooks, it's overtime. He makes it, it's over."

The exchange did more than tell how wired in Brooks was Saturday. It illustrated just how utterly insane things got in the Bucs' unbelievable 27-24 extra-period victory against the Atlanta Falcons before a sold-out and breathless Christmas Eve crowd of 65,482 at Raymond James Stadium.

Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal split the uprights with 15 seconds left in OT to end a thrill ride that put to shame anything Busch Gardens had going across town.

Chris Simms shook off a pair of early interceptions to throw for 285 yards and two touchdowns, teaming with record-setting tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (31 carries, 150 yards) for two inspirational drives that placed the Bucs on the threshold of their first playoff berth since winning the Super Bowl three years ago.

"I've been playing football all my life," Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber said. "But that's the craziest game I've ever been in."

But also one of the most satisfying wins in the 30-year history of the franchise.

In coming from seven points down with just over four minutes to go - and fending off near-certain disaster in the extra period - Tampa Bay (10-5) seized command of the NFC South Division, thanks to Carolina's home upset defeat against Dallas. To win the division, and clinch a home playoff game, the Bucs need only to beat the beaten down New Orleans Saints (3-12) at home next Sunday.

Getting to such an enviable spot on the next-to-last weekend of the season was exhausting. For both sides.

"I just have to keep reminding myself the game is officially over," Bucs Coach Jon Gruden said afterward. "Things did not look good there for a while."

Three times in the late stages, the home team was on the ropes, only to punch its way out of trouble.

"We never gave up," Hovan said. "Four, five, six quarters, whatever it takes to get in the playoffs. Yeah, we could have tanked and been home by the Christmas tree, but these guys weren't about to do that."

Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick (161 yards and two TDs passing, 63 yards rushing) marched his team to a go-ahead score. T.J. Duckett barreled over for a 2-yard touchdown run with 4:18 left to cap a 10-play, 79-yard drive.

Simms, who finished 29-of-42, answered, guiding the offense on an 11-play run of its own; against the clock, no less. Williams, who earlier in the game became the second Bucs rookie to rush for 1,000 yards, broke outside on a fourth-and-inches from the Falcons' 6 for the tying touchdown with just 25 seconds remaining.

That's when things got nuts.

The Bucs won the coin flip and received the overtime kickoff, but Edell Shepherd fumbled immediately and the Falcons recovered at the Bucs' 31.

Three plays later, Coach Jim Mora elected to go for the field goal - a gift-wrapped 28-yarder - on third down.

"We're blocking it," Brooks said in the huddle.

And they did. Dewayne White vaulted the pile and batted down Todd Peterson's kick, with the Bucs recovering. Just like that, a deflated stadium ballooned with life.

Simms marched the Bucs to the Falcons' 9, where Bryant set up for another one of those gift-wrapped game-winners five minutes into overtime. The snap was low, the kick hooked wide left.

"Amazing," Barber said.

There would be three more punts in the period, with Mark Jones returning the last 28 yards to the Falcons' 49 with just 54 seconds to go. Five plays and 26 yards later, the snap was low again, but holder Josh Bidwell made the placement and Bryant made the kick.

"We pounded the rock, baby!" Brooks said.

The Falcons (8-7) were pounded out of the playoff hunt.

"When you spill your guts out there and come up short, there's not a lot of analyzing you can do," Mora said.

One team went home to start planning its offseason, while the other set itself up for a run at the postseason.

And it was wild.

"If you're writing a story, it's about two teams that did not quit," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. "Both fought hard. Both deserved to win."

He smiled.

"But only one could."