GLENDALE, Ariz. — Aqib Talib and Geno Hayes awoke in their room at the Ritz Carlton in Phoenix on Sunday at 5:45 in the morning.
It might have been because their body clocks had not adjusted after arriving in the desert three days earlier.
So they sat around watching television, a couple of early birds chirping about the plays they wanted to make in the game against the Cardinals.
"We clowned a whole lot about us waking up at 5:45 in the morning, just sitting around, thinking about the game," Hayes said. "For us to come out and make those plays that we'd already pictured in our heads and talked about, it was so big."
In Sunday's 38-35 win over the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium, Talib and Hayes kept showing up at the right time.
Talib intercepted two passes, returning one 45 yards for a touchdown and saving the game with the other. Hayes returned an interception 41 yards for the Bucs' first score, and his big hit on LaRod Stephens-Howling caused a pick by linebacker Barrett Ruud in the fourth quarter.
"(Talib's) pick in the fourth quarter was about as clutch of a play that I've seen around here in a long, long time," Ronde Barber said of his fellow cornerback.
"He said it pregame. He said our unit is going to get three (interceptions) and he needed at least two of them. Lo and behold, he did it. He called his shot. He's that kind of player."
It was the fifth consecutive road victory dating to last season for the Bucs, equaling the franchise record and moving them to 5-2. Tampa Bay is tied with idle Atlanta for the best record in the NFC South (they meet at the Georgia Dome on Sunday), and the two are tied with the Giants for the best record in the NFC.
The Bucs blew a 31-14 lead partly by allowing two touchdowns within a span of 23 seconds in the third quarter.
But all that did was set up the sixth fourth-quarter comeback for quarterback Josh Freeman, whose 53-yard pass to rookie receiver Arrelious Benn set up LeGarrette Blount's 1-yard touchdown run with 5:13 left that proved to be the difference.
"It's like he almost did that on purpose," coach Raheem Morris said of Freeman, who passed for 278 yards and a touchdown; "throwing the game so he could get another fourth-quarter comeback."
Freeman's favorite target was rookie Mike Williams, who had four catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Blount, who lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown after a hard hit that left him with a stinger, rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. That included a late 48-yard run during which he spun out of a tackle then hurdled safety Kerry Rhodes.
"That's an option for me but not for a lot of guys," Blount said of his hurdle. "Me being 6-1, 6-2, 250, there's not a lot of safeties that are going to try and hit me up around my shoulder pads. That's one thing I'm sure of. They're going to go low or try to sideswipe me. I wait until the last second to make my decision."
Make no mistake, this was a game the Bucs nearly blew.
Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson, who replaced Max Hall after the rookie saw interceptions returned for scores by Hayes and Talib, rallied his team from a 17-point deficit to claim a 35-31 lead with 9:41 to play.
Blount's second touchdown run put the Bucs back on top again. But Morris made a risky decision to attempt a 53-yard field goal. Rhodes blocked it, giving Arizona the ball at its 43 with 3:16 left needing only a field goal to tie.
Anderson drove the Cardinals to the Tampa Bay 20 before Talib stepped in front of a pass intended for Larry Fitzgerald at the 3.
"The last one was Cover 2," Talib said. "They ran double slants. We squeeze on double slants, and Anderson tried to fit it in there."
Morris, who got a lot of national ridicule for proclaiming his team as the best in the NFC after last week's 18-17 win over the Rams, has reason to be confident.
"I'm going to remain unwavering," Morris said. "There's no doubt about it. As long as my record says that we are the best team in the NFC, I'm not going to let anybody tell me what we're not. And I'm certainly going to tell my team that we are. And that's what we are. Like I said the whole week, somebody has to be No. 1. Why not us?"
Certainly, there were two guys up before dawn Sunday who have bought what Morris is selling.
Hayes, whose swollen right knee was drained last week, did not know he could play until Saturday. Talib, who had been burned for four touchdowns this season, had a premonition that the defense — and himself in particular — would have a big day.
"Two guys in the room, we're not going to be silent," Talib said.
And the rest of the NFC is just waking up to the fact that the Bucs might stick around in the playoff hunt for a while.
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.