It's hard to say what was more remarkable about Clifton Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Was it the feat itself, which featured Smith darting through traffic with abandon, or was it the timing?
For coach Jon Gruden, the answer was unequivocal.
"Right then, we were struggling," he said. "It was a hot day, and it was not going well. That gave us a chance. Clifton gave us a chance and gave us some life and some energy."
Facing a seemingly insurmountable 24-3 deficit and the offense floundering, the Bucs needed a pick-me-up. They got more than that with the franchise's second kickoff-return touchdown, this one clearly swaying momentum.
The rookie free agent from Fresno State wasn't on the active roster until last week, when it was decided he would be promoted from the practice squad and supplant second-round pick Dexter Jackson (inactive Sunday) as the return man.
Boy, does that move look permanent now.
Not so fast
Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon, below, nearly made one of the game's biggest plays when he intercepted Chiefs QB Tyler Thigpen and raced 42 yards to the Chiefs 3-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Bucs appeared poised to score the go-ahead touchdown. But SS Sabby Piscitelli was called for illegal contact against TE Tony Gonzalez - before the change of possession. The timing of the infraction negated the play, and the Chiefs kept possession. An interesting thing: the conversation between Buchanon and Tanard Jackson before the play. "(Jackson) said to me, 'Hey, one of us is going to make a play here,'" Buchanon said. "I was thinking hopefully it would be me. I made the play, but it got called back. I guess he was right for both of us." Jackson had a forced fumble and recovery earlier that set up a touchdown.
Keep him clean
For the fourth time this season, the Bucs didn't allow a sack. Sunday's achievement was notable because QB Jeff Garcia attempted 43 passes in an effort to rally, making their offense predictable. "I thought the pass protection was outstanding," coach Jon Gruden said. LT Donald Penn was happy with the effort because it came against a defensive front that the Bucs regard highly. "They probably are underrated," he said of the Chiefs defense. "They're a good defensive line. We executed when it counted, and that's what helped us come out on top." The Bucs weren't successful in giving Garcia adequate time to throw late in last week's loss to Dallas. Against Kansas City, Garcia was able to consider multiple options before delivering the ball. "They're different games and a lot different circumstances," Penn said. "All I know is we did it when it counted. I think it's an example of our hungriness. It's determination."
Third and gold
Games are often won and lost on third down, and perhaps the Bucs have finally figured that out. Their 62 percent effort (8-for-13) Sunday was a dramatic improvement from last week's 35 percent result. Many of the conversions came late. In the Bucs' final five possessions, they were 4-for-5 on third downs. "Against the Cowboys, it felt like we were something like 3-for-17," WR Ike Hilliard said. "If you do that all year, you don't have opportunities. When you don't have opportunities, you usually get your (butt) kicked."
K.C.'s wild plays
The Bucs had suspicions that Kansas City's Chan Gailey-led offense might try unconventional methods. Tampa Bay just didn't know it was going to be the preferred method of attack. The Chiefs used direct snaps to running backs, a reverse and a halfback pass on their way to taking a 24-3 lead. "We expected some of that from (offensive coordinator) Chan Gailey," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He's got a history of being very creative. They really had us on the ropes. They mixed it up quite well. They had a unique package. Maybe we'll steal a few of those ideas next week." Two highlight plays: WR Mark Bradley's 37-yard touchdown pass to QB Tyler Thigpen off a reverse, and a direct snap to RB Jamaal Charles that picked up 16 yards on third and 1.
ON THIS ONE, GRAHAM LOOKS LIKE A FINE QB
It's not likely anyone will suggest Bucs RB Earnest Graham should be playing quarterback after the first touchdown pass of his career Sunday, but the play was big nonetheless.
Graham found TE Alex Smith for a 3-yard touchdown on a halfback pass in the fourth quarter, the fruition of weeks of flirting with the idea of using the play.
"We tried it out a little bit earlier in the season but never called it," Smith said. "We put it in (the game plan) this week because we thought we had a good chance for it. It was a great call and a great throw by Earnest. ... He said he couldn't really see me, so he just put it in the vicinity. Fortunately, the defense bit pretty hard."
Said Graham: "It worked out just like we thought. We have a million plays; we've just never used that one."
The call was indeed a savvy one. The Bucs had just created a turnover with S Tanard Jackson's strip and recovery, and the Bucs had first and goal at the Chiefs 3. It looked like a run all the way.
"They were going hard after the run," Smith said. "We could see they were digging their cleats in there."
RB Earnest Graham hasn't had a propensity for fumbles in his Bucs career, but he won't soon forget his two cough-ups against Kansas City. In 271 touches in 2007, when he had his heaviest workload, Graham fumbled once. That wasn't the case Sunday. Graham's first fumble came at the Bucs 41 on the team's first play from scrimmage. The gaffe set up a Chiefs touchdown. Graham fumbled again after the Bucs had driven 60 yards to the Chiefs 7 in the fourth quarter. He lost the ball on a hit by DE Tamba Hali with S Jarrad Page recovering 5 yards into the end zone. Graham wasn't alone. Rookie Clifton Smith fumbled inside the red zone, too, after making a catch and attempting to shake a tackler. "Those are terrible plays by us," coach Jon Gruden said. "You don't want to make a habit of doing that. We have to do a much better job." But Gruden didn't hesitate to go back to his two playmakers after their turnovers. Both had key plays on the tying drive late in the fourth quarter. "The biggest thing is just overcoming adversity," he said. "You're going to have a lot of ups and downs. That's life in general. It's about what you do after that."
GRUDEN SETS MARK - OR TIES IT
Depending on how you look at it, Sunday's victory by the Bucs made Jon Gruden the team's all-time winningest coach - or it tied him with Tony Dungy. If you include postseason victories, Gruden takes the lead with 57 (54 in the regular season and three in the postseason - all during Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run after the 2002 season). If you just count the regular season, Gruden is tied with Dungy at 54 (Dungy has two postseason wins). John McKay is third on the all-time list with 45 wins in 1976-1984. In his seventh season with the Bucs, Gruden has won three division titles, the most in team history, and led the team to its only Super Bowl championship.
Bucs QB Jeff Garcia's 339 yards passing gives him 18 300-yard passing games in his career.
Bucs TEs Alex Smith and John Gilmore combined for 52 yards on six receptions. Gilmore recorded a career-high four receptions, for 40 yards, while Smith had two receptions for 12 yards, including a touchdown and the tying two-point conversion. The Bucs are 5-0 this season when a tight end catches a touchdown.
RB Kolby Smith's 1-yard touchdown dive for the Chiefs marked the first rushing touchdown allowed by the Bucs this season.
Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles became the first opposing back to rush for more than 100 yards (106) against the Bucs defense this season.
"Every time I go out on the field, I expect to have a big play. That's just the way I am. But I caught the ball and saw nothing but my teammates knocking people out. My teammates get all the credit for that."
Clifton Smith, Bucs running back and kick returner