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A KICK WHEN THEY'RE DOWN

They are alive and kicking _ winning field goals, that is.

So maybe it came Sunday against a winless Lions team that rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. And maybe Martin Gramatica's 35-yard field goal with 4 seconds left in a 20-17 victory only boosted their record to 4-4.

And maybe quarterback Brad Johnson's 63-yard drive in 1:45 didn't breathe new life into the season as much as it performed CPR on it.

But can you imagine the alternative?

The Bucs could.

That was the prevailing thought by Tampa Bay players as they escaped with their playoff lives from the Silverdome. The Bucs knew a loss to the luckless Lions likely would flat-line the entire season.

But every time the NFL coroner tried to slip a tag on their foot, they wiggled a big toe.

"I truly believed it was going to be the most important game I played," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We lose to an 0-7 team? Where does the morale of this team go? It's (a disaster) then. That's pretty much what it is.

"All the nuts and bolts could've come out of it if we fell flat right here in Detroit. No doubt about it."

The Bucs avoided a midseason meltdown, but it wasn't for a lack of trying.

Tampa Bay led 10-0 at halftime and 17-7 after Karl Williams returned a John Jett punt 84 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the third quarter.

Williams' return came one series after his fumble of Jett's punt led to the Lions' first score _ a 1-yard run by fullback Cory Schlesinger _ cutting the Bucs' lead to a field goal.

"We could've made the game easier on ourselves," Johnson said. "For some reason, something wasn't clicking. Offensively, we had chances. We had the ball twice on the 35- or 40-yard line and couldn't get ourselves in the red zone to put the game away."

Instead, the Bucs allowed the Lions to creep back and tie it with a 38-yard field goal by Jason Hanson and an 8-yard pass from quarterback Charlie Batch to Reuben Droughns with 1:49 to play.

"We were talking on the sideline. Last week (at Green Bay) it was 17-7 and we said, "Let's close them out this week,' " safety John Lynch said. "Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, we weren't able to do that."

Instead, the crowd that had sat on its hands for most of the day came to life as the Bucs offense took the field.

"When they got that last touchdown, there was a sickness that came over me that was so intense," rookie left tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "Everything was on the line. I can't even imagine coming into this locker room with a loss. It would've been tough."

Enter Johnson, who went 20-of-37 for 188 yards, including a touchdown pass to Warrick Dunn.

A week ago, he failed twice in the fourth quarter to move his team into range for Gramatica to possibly send the game to overtime.

But Sunday he showed poise and a knack for the getting the ball to the Bucs' playmakers.

Perhaps the biggest play was an 18-yard, third-down pass to Keyshawn Johnson, who tiptoed the left sideline with a fingertip catch, giving the Bucs a first down at their 45.

The play was reviewed, to check whether Johnson got both feet in bounds, and the reception was upheld.

"If we didn't get that, we were going to hand them the ball back with a minute and a half to go," Brad Johnson said of Keyshawn Johnson's catch. "So that was a big, big play for us.

"It actually was a corner route. And we'd been trying to get to it all day long. He did a great job keeping his feet in bounds."

Dunn made the play that got Gramatica within range. After getting knocked down while chip blocking defensive end Tracy Scroggins, Dunn regained his feet and circled to the middle of the field where Johnson hit him in stride for a 23-yard completion to the Lions 26.

Two plays later, Gramatica, who was stranded on the sideline in Green Bay a week earlier, made the winning kick.

"That drive kept our season alive," Brad Johnson said. "I don't think you can fool yourself with that. Whether we win in overtime or however we won it, we had to find a way and we did.

"The guys did a great job of not panicking, believing we could score on the final drive. And that drive, no doubt, was big for our season."

Also coming up big for the Bucs were their stars on defense. Cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted Batch twice, saving at least one touchdown. And the Bucs sacked Batch a season-high five times, including two by Sapp.

"It's what I'm accustomed to," Lynch said of the Bucs pass rush. "Guys up in his face, (and) we had some success with the blitz package.

"Ronde got the interception. We were able to sit back and play our traditional cover-two. The guys up front were just humming all over the field, and we were taking care of the run. That kind of reminds me what we were all about."

Coach Tony Dungy was so grateful that he gave his players today off.

They could use the rest. Tampa Bay plays Chicago (6-2) at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday (kickoff has been moved to 4:15 p.m.) before a Monday night game Nov. 26 at St. Louis (7-1).

If the Bucs can put together a winning streak like they did in 1999 and 2000, it's not too late for them to climb back into the division race.

Still, you couldn't help but wonder how many feet under they would've been had they let Sunday's game slip away.

"We would've pulled out of it," Dungy said. "But it would've been tough, and we would have been just that much farther in the hole.

"Now we're in a hole, but we can at least see to ground level."

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