KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Parked on the outskirts of wretchedness, somehow, the Bucs came back.
Lost in the land where the sky is falling, incredibly, the Bucs came back.
Poised on the brink of seeing their season left for dead, amazingly, the Bucs came back.
They came back. From three touchdowns behind, from a thousand questions about their abilities and from all of those nasty things you probably said about them, they came back. From all the talk about a popgun offense and a vulnerable defense and a season that looked to be slipping away you were about to hear, they came back.
In the process, the Bucs might have accomplished something more than winning a football game Sunday afternoon.
Along the way, they might have salvaged their season.
This does not happen. Not in the NFL. Not even against a team as woefully self-destructive as the Kansas City Chiefs. And especially not with the Tampa Bay Bucs. Teams that play this badly this early do not often reverse their fall in time to turn a 24-3 deficit into a 30-27 overtime victory.
Yet, there they were, Lazarus in football cleats, hopping off their death beds and streaking into the end zone.
In the end, it was the biggest comeback win in franchise history. Somewhere along the way, perhaps your belief in this team came back, too.
"This one should define us," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "At the end of the day, you can look at this as a defining moment in our season, the game that said what kind of team we could be. We fought when we were down. We made the big plays when it counted."
This is how victory rewards a team. It grants forgiveness for the squalor of the first 20 minutes of the game. It enables talk of character and comebacks instead of demanding explanations why such a comeback was needed against such an opponent. It allows a team to skip merrily into the upcoming bye week instead of reminding itself of how its season almost slipped away.
Think about how hard this game would have been for the Bucs to lose. Think about the noise and the doubt and gnashing of teeth.
For crying out loud, those were the Chiefs. Around that town, the offense is horrible and the defense is worse and Tyler Thigpen is the quarterback and Larry Johnson has annoyed his way out of the lineup and everything — from the stadium to the roster — needs reconstruction.
There was a reason, in other words, Kansas City had won only once in its past 16 games. If the Bucs had lost this game, and a chance to go to 6-3, you would have had to go back to the days of Richard Williamson to match the embarrassment.
"I'm a glass half-empty guy," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "I can't help but think about what it would have been like to lose that game. My friends wouldn't have liked me as much, because I would have been grumpy. Food wouldn't have tasted as good. Nebraska red wouldn't have been as pretty."
Center Jeff Faine, weighing the options, shook his head slowly. "If we lose that game, we're close to .500, and we're fighting uphill for the playoffs. This way, we're right in there. The difference between losing this game and winning it is huge. It's night and day."
Yeah, there was luck involved. The Bucs were lucky to recover a fumble on the Chiefs 3 one play after fumbling away a scoring opportunity. They were lucky to win the overtime coin toss. They were lucky that tackle Jeremy Trueblood was in motion as kicker Matt Bryant missed a potential winning field goal, which would lead to a second chance.
Most of all, they were lucky they were playing the Chiefs. Against most teams, that kind of start would have doomed the Bucs.
It should be said that, yes, in the early going, the Chiefs were terrific fun. They were creative when the Bucs were cautious, and they were much bolder against a defense that is supposed to be much better. All in all, Kansas City played like a team that had nothing to lose but its position in the NFL draft.
Still, and you remember this from the bad days of the Bucs, things eventually catch up to bad teams. This time, it was Jeff Garcia and Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and Alex Smith.
Yeah, there is room for concern. The Bucs were bad early, and they will have to play better down the stretch for this comeback to mean anything.
On the other hand, they did drive 50 yards for the tying touchdown in 91 seconds. They did convert a two-point conversion to force overtime. They did rally from 21 points down. And they did come off the field talking about what they caught, not what got away.
"These kind of games give you strength," defensive end Kevin Carter said. "They give you confidence. Hopefully, we'll win enough games to look back and say, 'We got our momentum in Kansas City.' "
And perhaps that is the best measure of how far the Bucs came back Sunday.
They came back far enough to make you wonder how far they are capable of going.
Gary Shelton can be reached at [email protected]