They were lucky. Above all else, they were lucky.
The Bucs were charmed, and they were golden, and they were heaven-kissed. If they had found thousand-dollar bills in the grass, they could not have been more fortunate.
Also, they won.
There for a while, they were awful. They could not stop the run early, and they could not stop the pass late, and for most of the first half, they looked like a beaten fighter leaning on the ropes. Third down was a mystery, and the end zone was a riddle, and if the Redskins were not quite so dysfunctional, the score might have gotten ugly early.
Yet, they won.
The rain would not stop, and the field was a swamp, and at times it was easy to wonder if the Bucs would have enough players healthy to finish the game. A two-game losing streak was threatening to stretch into three, at which time the last rites might have been read for this season. No one in the TV booth seemed able to figure out what down it was.
Still, the Bucs won.
And in so doing, they saved a season.
If you wish to diminish the latest victory by the Bucs, there are a lot of moments up for discussion, right up to the blooper by the Redskins on the extra point that would have forced overtime. Not to say this victory was ugly, but put it this way: It doesn't have a date for homecoming. Somehow, the Bucs won, 17-16, but it was the kind of game that makes you recheck the math to be sure the right team won.
That said, this was a capital victory for the Bucs. For one thing, it assured that, no matter what happens in the final three games of the regular season, the Bucs will not finish with a losing record. After last season's 3-13 record, that's a pretty good start. More important, however, it kept the Bucs in the thick of the race for the NFC's second wild card, especially after Green Bay lost its game (and its quarterback).
Ah, but can you imagine how awful today would feel for the Bucs if they had blown Sunday's game? This would have felt very much like the end. It would have felt like a promising young team had just lost too many mainstays to continue the fight. It would have felt like time to discuss the possibilities of the Bucs winning eight games. Maybe even nine. It would have felt like the season had died young.
For the Bucs, that might be the best part of Sunday's victory.
"This way, I don't have to think about what losing would have meant," linebacker Barrett Ruud said.
Instead, the Bucs can talk about progress and resiliency and finding a way, all important things in a league where games often come down to one play or two. Yeah, the Bucs were lucky that a wayward snap squirted through the hands of holder Hunter Smith. On the other hand, they were unlucky a snap got knocked from the hands of quarterback Josh Freeman on first and goal from the 1.
In the NFL, the most important thing is the scoreboard. Win, and everything else is pardoned.
"No, I don't feel lucky," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "Did you ask Atlanta if they felt lucky last week? We're not going to apologize for any form of wins."
The truth of it is that, yes, the Bucs were lucky. After all, the Redskins didn't botch that last extra point because the Bucs are so intimidating. But the Bucs were lucky, bully for them. Since when is good fortune a bad thing? And when you think of it, isn't good the very best kind of luck to have?
Still, if you are trying to buy into the Bucs as a playoff threat, there were very disturbing patches of play. For instance, when did former practice squad back Ryan Torain turn into the second coming of John Riggins? Torain finished with 172 yards, including 121 in the first quarter, and he averaged 7.2 yards per carry.
Not only that, but Donovan McNabb was sharp enough (a 100.7 rating) that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan didn't even turn to Rex Grossman in the final quarter. Fortunately for the Bucs, the Redskins blew two early field goals to keep the game close.
If the Bucs are going to continue to win, they cannot afford to play defense like this. They cannot tackle this poorly. They cannot continue to go into the shotgun on third and 1.
"The facts are the facts," Ruud said. "They outplayed us. We got the win, but they outplayed us. It happened the other way around a couple of times last year. It's the NFL, and you have to play every snap. But it's one of the uglier wins I've ever had."
Added cornerback Ronde Barber: "Sometimes you get lucky, basically. We'll take it and get out of here with one of the worst defensive days we've had in a long time."
So what saved the Bucs? For one thing, the Redskins did. But for another, the Bucs have been a plucky team for most of the season. Road games don't bother them, and deficits don't bother them, and losing familiar faces doesn't bother them. Three weeks ago, the Bucs lost Cody Grimm and Davin Joseph. Last week, they lost Aqib Talib and Jeff Faine. Sunday, they lost Gerald McCoy and Quincy Black.
Still, they won. Once again, Freeman was money in the fourth quarter. Once again, they left their critics grumbling not about the outcome but the strength of schedule.
"We don't care about style points," Ruud said. "This isn't the BCS."
What it is is 8-5. Thanks to a little luck and a little pluck, all things are possible.