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Got a couple minutes? Then Johnson's your QB

It was the wrong time to look for anything special.

The Tampa Bay Bucs stood in a circle, a long way from the goal line and a short distance from disappointment. Assorted varieties of despair seemed to have them surrounded.

There was 1:49 to go, and the end zone was 80 yards away, and the Bucs looked very much as if they were one step from the morgue. If you could have traded it all in for overtime, you would have done it.

Which is when Brad Johnson stuck his head inside a huddle and said howdy.

And the next thing you knew, the season still had a pulse.

For the first time, Johnson showed us what he can do in the closing seconds of Sunday's game. He can gather a day that seems to be slipping away, and he can rein it in. He can grant his teammates a sense of calm, a sense of professionalism, and lead them downfield for the winning points.

This was Johnson's finest moment since his car entered the city limits. With a game on the line, with a season in the balance, Johnson guided his team 63 yards in eight plays to set up Martin Gramatica's winning field goal in a 20-17 victory over the Lions.

This is why the Bucs went after Johnson in the offseason. Because he can gather a team that seemed to be reeling, guide it forward and keep hope from leaving a locker room.

The truth is, Johnson didn't play very well for most of Sunday's game. He had a rotten second half. Until the final drive, Johnson had completed only 3 of 9 passes for 24 yards. After throwing a 12-yarder to Warrick Dunn for the Bucs' only offensive touchdown, Johnson had hit only four of his previous 12 passes for 33 yards.

But the good quarterbacks are the ones who hear the two-minute warning, and it sounds like a bugler sounding charge. On that final drive, Johnson transformed from butcher to surgeon. He completed his final five passes, for 61 yards, to set up Gramatica.

"I think (the final two minutes) are how you are evaluated as a quarterback," Johnson said. "That and winning championships. I've lost those kinds of games, too. You just try to do a little better than .500 in them.

"Those last two minutes are where winning percentages are made, where seasons are saved, where championships are won."

The ability to handle those final two minutes is a skill, as important as the strength of a man's arm or the quickness of his feet. This is a two-minute league filled with comebacks and collapses. There are quarterbacks who can handle the moment, and there are those who can't. There are those who add a sense of calm to the huddle, and those who make their teammates roll their eyes.

"I think poise is the most important quality a quarterback can have in the NFL," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "It's a game of duress. If you can handle that, you're probably going to succeed as a quarterback. Now, compound that in the last two minutes, when everything is going faster, when everything is riding on the outcome.

"Today was the perfect example. Brad didn't play well for most of the second half until it counted."

For half a season, Tampa Bay has withheld judgment on Johnson. It has held him at a distance, comparing price and performance, as if it could not decide whether to call his name or call for his head. No, he hasn't cured the offense. Yes, Johnson is maddening with his love of throwing short and holding the ball too long.

But give the guy credit for this. He knows his weaponry. And he has a gift for timing.

"I think poise is the No. 2 skill Brad has," Dungy said. "First is his accuracy. If you have those two things, you're going to win a lot of games, whether you're Joe Montana in Kansas City, when he wasn't the athlete he had been earlier in his career, or Jim Plunkett in the Super Bowl."

On the most important play of the winning drive, Johnson threw an 18-yard out to his favorite target, Keyshawn Johnson, who barely got both feet in bounds.

Had the Bucs not made that play, they would have had to punt with 1:30 left. Who knows if they would have another meaningful offensive play.

Two plays later, Warrick Dunn was knocked to the ground as he ran his pass pattern. He got back up, took a short flip from Johnson, and turned it into a 23-yard gain. Three plays later, the Bucs kicked the winning field goal.

"Veteran guys seem to know how to handle the situation," Keyshawn Johnson said. "Brad's one of those."

Let's be real. The Bucs didn't cure themselves of their problems. They staved off a winless team. They managed to avoid 3-5 and all the ugliness that comes with it.

Also, this: The quarterback managed to stay calm.

For at least one more week, everyone can try to do the same.