CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In his 10 NFL seasons, Dallas Clark has experienced just about every emotional victory imaginable. But the tight end had never caught a touchdown pass in overtime — the football equivalent of a walkoff hit or buzzer-beating jump shot — until Sunday, when he hauled in a 15-yard winner from Josh Freeman in the Bucs' 27-21 victory over Carolina.
After tapping both toes inside the end zone, ending the game on the first OT possession, Clark looked up to see the Bucs sideline exploding toward him, a celebration that spilled from the field into the visitor's locker room at Bank of America Stadium.
Freeman, who had struggled until late in the fourth quarter, ran with arms and index fingers raised. Coach Greg Schiano was lifted by receivers coach P.J. Fleck and pumped his fist.
"It's weird," said Clark, 33. "I've never done that before. Looking at the sideline and seeing everyone rush onto the field. It's not like basketball. You don't practice that during the week, so that was fun."
As euphoric as that play was for Clark, it's nothing compared to the thrill ride the Bucs have been on the past six weeks.
Trailing by 11 with just more than four minutes remaining in the game, Tampa Bay completed an improbable comeback against the Panthers to win its fourth straight game, and fifth of its past six.
Conner Barth kicked a 40-yard field goal with 4:03 left to cut Carolina's lead to 21-13. And receiver Vincent Jackson caught a 24-yard touchdown pass and a tying two-point conversion with 12 seconds remaining in regulation, forcing overtime.
The Bucs (6-4) moved into a three-way tie with Seattle and Minnesota, who both had the week off, for the second and final NFC wild-card playoff spot.
"I'll tell you what, Vincent Jackson is worth every penny we paid him," safety Ronde Barber said of the receiver, who had only two catches in the first half but finished with six for 94 yards and the late touchdown.
"He keeps showing up and showing up. I'll give it to Free(man). I don't think he was at his best, he'll probably say that today. But when it mattered at the very end of that game, I don't know I'd want another guy throwing the ball for us. Then in that overtime, it was Doug Martin."
After the Bucs jumped to a 10-0 lead, Freeman's streak of 161 passes without an interception was broken when he back-footed a pass to Clark in the flat that was picked off by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and returned 74 yards for a touchdown.
After the Bucs stopped a fake punt, Freeman threw a second interception trying to hit Jackson on a deep pass in the end zone.
Martin, who finished with 138 yards on 24 carries, giving him 1,000 yards for the season — had to bounce back from his own misery. The rookie running back held his head on the bench after his fumble into the end zone as he crossed the goal line was recovered by linebacker Luke Kuechly for a touchback, keeping the Bucs in a 14-10 hole early in the fourth quarter.
"It was a fumble, but I felt like I crossed the plane before I did it," Martin said.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made it 21-10 when he hit Brandon LaFell for a 29-yard touchdown with six minutes left.
What turned it around Sunday for the Bucs?
"Unfortunately, urgency," Clark said. "Looking at the clock and saying, 'Wow, this one is almost over. We've got to wake up.' "
Freeman, who finished 25-of-46 for 248 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, drove the Bucs 58 yards in 10 plays to set up Barth's field goal.
The Bucs then got the ball back at their 20 with 1:02 left and no timeouts.
Jackson beat Kuechly down the middle and Freeman put it on him for a touchdown.
"That was a laser," Schiano said of the pass.
The two-point conversion was a play-action slant to Jackson.
Martin took over in overtime, carrying five times for 48 yards. Clark's touchdown came when he beat linebacker James Anderson on an out and up down the left sideline.
"You've got to love it when the linebacker swears when you head upfield," Clark said.
Schiano was carried a few yards by Fleck, but truth be told, his feet still haven't touched the ground.
"I was just going to tell (Fleck), 'You're going to hurt yourself,' " Schiano said.