Above anything else, Michael Clayton proved he can take a punch. Knocked down for most of the past three seasons, the Bucs' beleaguered receiver finally showed some fight when his team needed it most. Brian Griese had overcome three interceptions to rally Tampa Bay from two scores down in the fourth quarter and force overtime against the Bears. But after going three-and-out and with his team facing a punt from its end zone, a skirmish broke out. Clayton was right in the middle of it and found himself on the receiving end of a haymaker from cornerback Charles Tillman. Of all the big plays the Bucs made in Sunday's 27-24 overtime win over the Bears, this one proved to be the biggest. Tillman was penalized for unnecessary roughness, extending a drive that would result in Matt Bryant's winning 21-yard field goal with 4:21 left.
"I made a legal block that's very aggressive; just trying to clean up the pile," Clayton said. "It's like, 'Okay here we go. It's on. I'm going to hit you. Hit me back.' I was baiting him to make a little fight out of it. Draw a little attention. Oh, yeah. And draw the flag. It worked out perfectly."
Like Clayton, the Bucs' corps of wide receivers got up off the deck Sunday. Despite not having Joey Galloway, who stayed home with a foot injury, they caught the ball in traffic, caught it on third down, caught it 38 times for 407 yards in 67 attempts — just three shy of the NFL record.
Maybe now they won't catch as much flak?
"When you throw the ball (67) times, you should have some completions," coach Jon Gruden said. "You shouldn't be 0-for-(67). But we did some good things. Michael Clayton came back. Antonio Bryant had 10 catches, and I think he'll look at the tape and be mad he didn't have more than that. But we're a work in progress."
Tillman apologized for losing his cool.
"The saying is, 'They always see the second push,' " he said. "I was just trying to swing him off me."
But time and time again, the Bucs' receivers beat Chicago's secondary.
Start with Bryant. After well-documented dustups with coaches Bill Parcells in Dallas and Mike Nolan in San Francisco, he spent all of last season on his couch, wondering if he would get a chance to play in the NFL again. Sunday, Bryant replaced Galloway and finished with a career-high 10 catches for 138 yards, including a 38-yard catch-and-run to the Bears 6 that set up the winning field goal.
"Ask (Griese) how his arm feels. I know I'm gassed," Bryant, 27, said. "I feel like I really got broken in this game as far as not playing for awhile and being in this type of game, this atmosphere. I think it was a great experience for me."
Griese, who understandably iced his arm after the game, credited the stamina of Bryant and others for keeping the pressure on the Bears.
"They ran a bunch of routes, and the endurance they had was amazing," Griese, 33, said. "For Antonio Bryant to make that play at the end of the game and have the juice left in his legs to get by the corner there, that's a huge play for us."
Consider Ike Hilliard, who at 32 is the team's leading receiver this season. Sunday, he finished with six catches for 57 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown in the first quarter that gave the Bucs a 7-6 lead.
"We need everybody to come out and make plays on a regular basis, and we need to be consistent about that. It can't be up and down," Hilliard said. "That's why it's got to be tough for those guys in the other locker room. If you create four turnovers in your home stadium and you lose, it's got to be gut-wrenching."
Of course, when you throw as many footballs as some starting pitchers do through five innings, the chances keep coming. Clayton said he hadn't had this feeling since 2004, when he was a rookie of the year candidate. Keeping the faith gave him and the Bucs a puncher's chance.
"When you're getting the ball, you tend to go back to normality," Clayton said. "I've always felt like the guy of '04. I just had the opportunity, and I'm thankful for that. I'll continue to work, and we'll see what happens next week."