KANSAS CITY, Mo.
Ike Hilliard held his face in his hands after dressing slowly at his locker at Arrowhead Stadium until there was no denying how the topsy-turvy afternoon had taken its toll on the Bucs' 32-year-old receiver. He already had pulled on his slacks, shirt and vest for the flight home to Tampa. According to Hilliard, all that was missing from his suit was a straitjacket. "I'm too old for this," he said. "Unreal. They're making my life very interesting. That's the very best I can say. They're allowing me to have a lot of fun. It was crazy. Crazy." Relief, mixed with disbelief, was the prevailing sentiment of Bucs players and coaches after their historic 30-27 overtime victory over the Chiefs on Sunday. After watching his team fall behind 24-3 in the first half only to outscore Kansas City 27-3 from there and record the biggest comeback win in franchise history, Hilliard put it into perspective heading into the bye week.
"Bye week or no bye week, you look at our team and how we've been able to play and the talk that we had all week about avenging (the Dallas) loss," Hilliard said. "To come out and play so poorly, we have to look at what we've done and regroup to a man and figure out how to not be so flat … coming out on the road against a team we should've beat and put away.
"That's no disrespect to the Chiefs. We felt we had a chance to go out and make a statement after a tough loss on the road. On the other hand … unreal in terms of the resiliency that these guys showed."
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the final two drives directed by Jeff Garcia, whose 24-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Bryant and two-point conversion bullet to Alex Smith tied it with 19 seconds left in regulation.
Garcia kept the football away from the Chiefs in overtime, hitting Michael Clayton for 29 yards on the first play to help set up Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal.
It was an improbable finish for the Bucs, who committed four turnovers (three fumbles and an interception) against a team that entered 1-6. Two fumbles came in the red zone, where Tampa Bay has scored 13 touchdowns among 37 trips this season, including 2-of-6 on Sunday.
All last week, the Bucs stewed over their failures at Dallas, when Garcia failed to launch a pass into the end zone in four tries on the final drive of a 13-9 loss.
This time, trailing 27-19 and facing a first and 15 at the Kansas City 24, Garcia took his shot against a Cover 2 defense.
He noticed the Chiefs safeties had been cheating to the middle of the field, making it hard to help their cornerbacks over the top. So he dropped a perfect pass over the head of cornerback Maurice Leggett, and Bryant made a tremendous catch while tightroping the sideline in the end zone.
"The protection up front gave me the time," Garcia said; "gave me the lane to step up and basically look inside to hold defenders and put a ball where … it got over the corner's reach and gave Antonio a chance to make a play."
Garcia finished 31-of-43 for 339 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He spread the ball around to nine receivers. But his favorite target was Bryant, who hauled in a team-high eight catches for 115 yards and the touchdown.
Smith's sliding catch of the two-point conversion, which resulted in a sprained right ankle, came on a play they had worked on during practice for several weeks.
"There was a whole lot going on, and you just want to secure it and hold on tight for dear life," Smith said.
The Bucs, who at 6-3 sit a half-game behind the idle Panthers for first in the NFC South, won the coin toss to start overtime. Then Clayton stayed alive for a scrambling Garcia and managed to keep his feet after a short reception and turned it upfield, getting a good block from tight end Jerramy Stevens.
"Huge play by Michael," Garcia said. "The guy is a physical receiver. He made some clutch catches all day long, but that was the biggest catch he made in this game."
The comeback, however, would not have been possible if not for two plays, Clifton Smith's franchise-record 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown late in the first half and the forced fumble and recovery by safety Tanard Jackson in the fourth quarter.
Jackson's play came one snap after Clifton Smith, this time in at running back, fumbled at the Chiefs 10. On the Bucs' first play after their recovery at the 3, Earnest Graham completed a halfback option pass to Alex Smith to cut the Chiefs' lead to 24-19 (the two-point conversion failed).
"We made a play. That's the difference in this league," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Sometimes, guys make great plays. And sometimes, the other team makes them. We had a dramatic victory in Chicago (on Sept. 21), much like this. And we had a dramatic victory (Sunday) for us; close, hard-fought losses three other times.
"That's why you spend so much time working on the two-minute drill. And boy, did our guys play extremely well when we got into that phase of our offense."