I realize that a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be the last person on earth to look a gift victory in the mouth. But I was so certain this was going to be a loss — especially with how we squandered another lead just like last week — that when the game ended and the Bucs had won, I was more shocked than excited.
Even when it was 20-3, I felt almost certain we were going to blow it. This was a good team, in their home stadium, smarting from a loss to the Saints and a listless, way-too-close win over a bad Titans team. This was your classic get-better game for the Falcons, a chance to beat up on a bad team and remind everyone of the undefeated contenders they were a few weeks ago. So despite a 17-point lead, I had the creeping dread sensation that they would get their act together and restore sanity to the Georgia Dome.
Which they did for the better part of the second half. The Falcons seemed to score at will, and the Bucs went into their maddening “We don’t need any more points” mode, and everything looked for all the world like the avalanche was coming. Yet we had the ball needing only a first down to run out the clock and end the game. Doug Martin couldn’t get a yard on third down, and so came the fourth down decision, stretched out by a conveniently timed two-minute warning: try to get one yard and end the game but possibly set Atlanta up in great shape if you fail, or punt and hope the defense can hold on a longer field.
Jameis Winston almost pulled off the miracle, but there we were handing the ball over to the Falcons at our own 40-yard line, the crowd now at full throat. And it took them all of a minute and a half to drive down, score the tying touchdown, and send it to overtime. And suddenly we were back in Washington again, watching a good effort wasted, and I was grumbly and angry just watching to see how we blew it in the extra session.
I was still not feeling it as we kept making third down plays and got the ball down into the red zone on our first drive in overtime. The specter of defeat hovered like a leftover Halloween spirit. I was sure we’d kick the field goal, then fold as the Falcons raced down for the winning touchdown. So when we took the 23-20 lead, I still braced myself for the worst.
Then the defense, dormant in the second half after forcing four turnovers, showed up again. They almost ended the game with a fumble, but the Falcons recovered. Two incompletions later, and the Bucs were dancing on the field and I was sitting in my chair trying to wrap my head around the fact that we’d actually won the damn thing.
Even now, a few hours later, it doesn’t seem like it happened. Which is a shame, because this really could be a grow-up kind of win for this team. Winston wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t commit any turnovers, and he lead the team when it needed it with basically half a receiving corps. The defense stepped up when it had to. We’re 2-1 in the division now, and at 3-4 we’re still marginally in the playoff picture. But more than anything, this team showed it was better able to shrug off last week than I was. It would have been so easy to have watched another lead slip away and just throw in the towel. Instead, we stood up, fought back, and took away a win we maybe shouldn’t have had.
So I apologize for being a sourpuss in the face of victory. I’ve just gotten so conditioned to disappointment over these last few seasons, I don’t know how to handle good fortune when it’s right in front of me. And it could be reflexive self-defense against future heartbreak this season, because, let’s be honest, we’re a 3-4 team for a reason. But I should let myself enjoy the peaks when they come so the valleys don’t seem as deep.