Jeff Garcia stood in the middle of the locker room Sunday night, the eye black still smeared across his face. As he answered questions about his 310-yard passing performance in the Bucs' 20-10 win over the Seahawks, he kept his eyes on the television as rookie David Price got the final out to send the Rays to the World Series. "That's more exciting than this win right now," Garcia said, smiling as the locker room erupted. "I'm excited for them. "We were the minor-league game tonight in the Tampa Bay area. And that's just the way things happen." It figures. Overlooked for much of his career, Garcia picked the wrong night to have his best game. The smoke returned to Garcia's arm on Sunday night. There also was lots of life in his legs. And suddenly, you get the feeling they still are enough to carry the Buccaneers a long way.
The 38-year-old quarterback was 27-of-36, completing throws to 10 different receivers and shredding the Seahawks for 226 yards during a nearly flawless first half — a career high — including a 47-yard touchdown to Antonio Bryant.
He threw passes deep down the field. He threw them while jumping in the air and falling onto his back. He threw them underhanded and backhanded.
He also threw away the notion that anyone else should quarterback the Bucs this season.
"He was hot," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He made a lot of plays. He was healthy.
"And when he's healthy, he's at his best."
The victory improved the Bucs to 5-2 — their best start since 2005 — and left them tied atop the NFC South with the Panthers, whom they blasted 27-3 a week earlier.
If the Bucs entered Sunday night's nationally televised game as one of the league's most unheralded teams, the secret is out now.
Then again, the Bucs didn't even get top billing in their hometown with the Rays playing the Red Sox in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series just across the Howard Frankland Bridge in St. Petersburg.
Several times Sunday night, the sellout crowd at Raymond James Stadium broke out into cheers of "Let's Go Rays!'
And sharing this stage was retired fullback Mike Alstott, who was honored during an extravagant halftime celebration that included flash cards and plenty of flashbulbs.
While it was Alstott's night, Garcia stole the show.
First, he put the Bucs up 7-0 with a perfectly thrown 47-yard pass to Bryant, who beat cornerback Kelly Jones in man coverage on a blitz. It was the first completion of more than 40 yards for the Bucs this season. Tampa Bay had 11 last season, eight by Joey Galloway, who missed his fifth consecutive game with a sprained right foot.
"I had a go route to Antonio, and I just tried to put it in a place where he could make a play," Garcia said. "He did the rest after the catch. And that's something he did all night. The yards after the catch were huge."
Bryant had a breakout game, finishing with six catches for 115 yards and the touchdown.
"I think Jeff kind of wanted to go deep since we hadn't had a completion of over 40 yards," Bryant said. "Everyone was kind of antsy to make a big play down the field, so it all went together."
The Bucs made it 14-0 on Earnest Graham's 1-yard run with 6:32 remaining in the first half.
But one play during the drive epitomized Garcia's night. On first down from the Seattle 47, tight end Jerramy Stevens ran an out route. But Garcia saw he was covered and threw the ball inside, allowing Stevens to adjust for a 31-yard completion.
"Julian Peterson, their linebacker, took a deep drop," Garcia said. "He was pretty much in a position to cover the corner route, but there was nobody inside. And I was just hoping Jerramy was on the same page with me. I threw a ball that he could hopefully adjust to. He made a great adjustment and a great catch."
There was one frightening play with the Bucs driving early in the second quarter.
On second and 9 from the Seahawks 8, Ike Hilliard took a short pass from Garcia and was sandwiched between linebackers Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu. Hilliard appeared to lose consciousness before hitting the ground, the ball coming free.
He remained on the field for several minutes as trainers and paramedics attended to him. Eventually, he rose to his feet and was carted off the field. Hilliard, who had neck fusion surgery 11 years ago, did not return to the game. He was admitted to St. Joseph's hospital for observation overnight with a concussion.
Officials initially ruled Hilliard was down by contact. But the play was reversed on a replay challenge when referee Scott Green determined Hilliard lost possession before he hit the ground.
Meanwhile, the Bucs defense made life miserable for quarterback Seneca Wallace. Playing for injured starter Matt Hasselbeck, Wallace was 4-of-10 for 26 yards and was intercepted by Aqib Talib in the first half.
"It's good to be under the radar, but I think as the season goes along and we're able to win football games, people are going to take notice," Bucs running back Warrick Dunn said. "You have to win the games you're supposed to win, and you have to win games you're not supposed to win.
"I think right now we're confident. But at the same time, it's a long road."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.