Moments after the Bucs knocked off the St. Louis Rams 38-35 to earn a playoff berth, receiver Keyshawn Johnson met coach Tony Dungy at midfield and exchanged a lengthy embrace.
Dungy said he was happy for the franchise and particularly happy for Johnson, who was brought to Tampa Bay to produce those very moments.
"We talked a lot about why he's here and what we wanted to get from him and it was those types of games," Dungy said. "That's the stage that your big-play players have to step up in. I knew he was capable of doing that and I was happy he was able to do it in that form."
Johnson said his emotions got the best of him because making the playoffs meant that much.
"It was a deep appreciation for the fact that I was given the opportunity to perform on a big stage in a big game and to prove a lot of people wrong for me and (Dungy)," said Johnson, who caught seven passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns in that game. "He's been telling people all along that these are the type of games I was brought here to help win. I was saying to him, "Thank you for giving me the opportunity.' "
The opportunity didn't come easily.
The first pick in the 1996 NFL draft and obtained by the Bucs in an April 2000 trade, Johnson survived a four-game losing streak (including a disappointing loss to his former Jets team) to post yet another productive regular season (71 catches, 874 yards, 8 touchdowns) by his standards, and one of the most productive for a Bucs receiver in recent history.
But truth be told, the regular season isn't why the Bucs brought Johnson to Tampa.
"They brought me here for the regular season, but mainly for the post-season," Johnson said. "To be able to beat the Rams, beat Minnesota, the big games. It's not taking away anything from the other receivers here, but they needed a kick to it. They didn't get it to me early (in the season), but in the end they figured it out."
Added Dungy: "To me, that's what stands out over the course of any football season. Those are the performances that you remember. That's why it kind of tickled me during the year when people said we weren't using Keyshawn and that kind of stuff. You don't remember Keyshawn having four touchdowns in Week 4. You remember the playoffs and when it's really important."
It's in the post-season than Johnson's pedigree has been most impressive. In his two playoff appearances with the Jets, he averaged eight catches for 97 yards.
"There's something about playing in the month of January," Johnson said, "The last time I played in the month of January I think I did pretty well."
Pretty well? Johnson's post-season performances, albeit limited, go beyond pretty well.
Following the 1998 season, the Jets began their march to the AFC Championship Game with a divisional playoff game against Jacksonville. Johnson had one of the most remarkable performances in playoff history, catching nine passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.
And that was the boring stuff.
Johnson, then in his third season in the league, wasn't satisfied with the catch-and-run duties commonly asked of Pro Bowl receivers. With the Jets leading 10-0 and at the Jaguars' 22-yard line, running back Curtis Martin fumbled. The ball was picked up by safety Chris Hudson, who returned it 42 yards. Johnson chased Hudson down and recovered the ball when Hudson himself fumbled.
The hustling play was the start of a new drive that Johnson finished with 10-yard touchdown run.
Then, with the Jets leading 34-24, Johnson played defensive back and intercepted Mark Brunell's Hail Mary pass with 20 seconds to play.
"When you look at it, a lot of people say big-time players need to show up in big-time games and I've always believed in that theory," said Johnson, who added seven catches for 73 yards in his other playoff appearance. "But I've always risen to the occasion for whatever reason. My focus shifts and goes up to a different level in bigger games, throughout my career. Whether it's Monday night games, Sunday night games, playoff games or bowl games, when it means something, I've done well."
Even in college, Johnson had a history of increased productivity in the post-season. As a junior at the University of Southern California, he had 222 yards on eight catches in a win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl and was named MVP. The following year, he had 12 catches for 216 yards and one touchdown in a 41-32 win over Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. He was MVP of that game as well.
"When games get critical, some guys have the ability to rise to the occasion and I think he has that," Dungy said. "That's one of the reasons why we wanted to get him. We could have taken two No. 1 draft picks and tried to develop two rookies, but that was a talent he had that we recognized. We expected him to do that."
Key's post-season playoff performances
JAN. 2, 1995: Cotton Bowl, eight catches, 222 yards, 3 TDs, game MVP.
JAN. 1, 1996: Rose Bowl, 12 catches, 216 yards, 1 TD, game MVP.
JAN. 10, 1998: With Jets, nine catches, 121 yards, 1 receiving TD, 1 rushing TD, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery.
JAN. 17, 1998: With Jets, seven catches, 73 yards.