The ache felt by the Bucs after blowing another 17-point lead, the emptiness of not making coach Lovie Smith's chips-on-the-table, fourth-and-1 gamble work late in the fourth quarter and the thought of walking out of the Georgia Dome with another stinging defeat to the Falcons would have normally been too much to bear.
But that was nothing compared to the real heartbreak felt by rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, who played two days after learning his teenage brother, Broderick Taylor, was killed in a fight in their hometown of Anniston, Ala., only 90 minutes from where he took the field Sunday. A man has been charged with his murder.
Alexander had a monster performance, finishing with 11 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble and recovery in the Bucs' 23-20 overtime win over the Falcons. All told, the Bucs scored 20 off four turnovers.
Jameis Winston converted three huge third-down passes in overtime to march the Bucs 68 yards in 15 plays and set up Connor Barth's winning 31-yard field goal.
And the Bucs defense, which had given up the tying touchdown pass with 17 seconds left in the fourth quarter, clamped down on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, sacking him once and forcing an incompletion to end the game.
In the locker room afterward, Alexander was given the game ball by guard Logan Mankins. The 21-year-old linebacker taught his teammates something about moving past real adversity.
"It's one game," Winston said. "But it means a lot to this team that our brother is in pain and we won this game for him. We don't care about the division right now. We don't care who else is winning. We care about our brother who is on our team and put all his distractions behind him and all the burdens he had on his back but decided to go and play for us."
Alexander's hustle play in the first quarter set the tone. After his first interception in the end zone had been called back, he ran down receiver Julio Jones after a 35-yard completion, ripped the ball out of his arms and returned the fumble 20 yards. In the second quarter, he stepped in front of a pass intended for Jacob Tamme, and the INT set up Winston's 20-yard TD strike to Cameron Brate for a 13-3 lead.
Smith said Alexander decided to remain with his teammates this weekend, saying that's what his brother would want. "The fumble recovery he had was big, and then just playing the way he played all game," Smith said.
Winston was terrific in the clutch, and his improvisational skills were on display when he saw the planned pitch to receiver Donteea Dye was covered and he ran 4 yards for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 20-3 lead that stood up until late in the fourth quarter.
But the Bucs had a feeling of deja vu. A week earlier, they had a 24-7 lead at Washington and lost 28-27. Ryan (397 yards, two TDs), Jones (12 catches, 162 yards, TD) and Devonta Freeman (121 yards total offense) had big days.
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That's why Smith tried to end the game by going for it on fourth and 1 at the Tampa Bay 40 with the Falcons out of timeouts at the two-minute warning. But Winston's bootleg was stopped for no gain, and Ryan made them pay with a tying TD pass to Jones with 17 seconds left.
"If we punt the ball, we're going to have to stop them," Smith said. "We had an opportunity to finish the game right then. I make that call 10 out of 10 times."
Winston was terrific in overtime, completing three clutch passes on third down. "He's not young. He doesn't act young," tackle Gosder Cherilus said of Winston. "He doesn't talk young. He's a hell of a player. You can't scare this kid away. You saw what happened. He made something happen."
But when Winston fired short to Adam Humphries in the end zone to force a field goal, the defense had to win the game.
Rookie Howard Jones sacked Ryan on third down and was draped on him, along with Gerald McCoy, to force an incompletion on the next play and end the game. Immediately, the Bucs' thoughts turned to Alexander, who said his brother was "tall, goofy and loved to make people laugh."
"I was very determined," Alexander said. "It was the only thing on my mind. Because all he wanted me to do was ball. I gave this game to him."