When 2007 began most people expected the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to improve, but not to the extent that they did by the end of the year. A division championship was an unexpected gift to Buccaneers fans and the franchise. How did it happen?
In hindsight, there are signposts to a successful season. Here is No. 1 in our series of the most significant moments of the 2007 season and how they impacted Tampa Bay’s run to a division championship.
9. BRIAN KELLY PICKS OFF JASON CAMPBELL, NOV. 25
At the time the Buccaneers were 6-4, but by no means in control of the NFC South or their playoff destiny. The Saints were surging in New Orleans. Carolina was still in the hunt. And the Washington Redskins, fresh off a loss, came to down with the hopes of putting themselves back into the race.
The Redskins and Bucs were familiar with each other. The meeting was their fifth in four years, prompting Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs to crack a joke that “he needed to speak to his athletic director about scheduling.”
Like their previous meetings, this one was a hard-fought affair. Bucs QB Jeff Garcia left the game early with an injury and the offense sputtered without him. Backup Bruce Gradkowski was able to squeeze out enough to help the Bucs to a 19-3 halftime lead.
It appeared to be enough. But as the Bucs offense coughed and failed to move the chains, the defense lost its footing and the Redskins fought back.
The Bucs thought they had it in the bag after Ronde Barber picked off Washington QB Jason Campbell in the final minutes. But even with Garcia at the controls, the Bucs were unable to get a first down and had to punt.
Campbell drove them the length of the field looking for a touchdown, which would have won the game. Campbell thought he had one too as he lofted one toward the right corner with 17 seconds left.
But Brian Kelly had other ideas. The veteran corner, who had been dogged by groin problems all year, stepped in front of the pass, picked it off and ended threat and the game.
The Bucs improved to 7-4.
Now imagine if Kelly had not picked off that pass.
The Bucs would have gone to New Orleans the next week at 6-5 and without their starting quarterback. They would have gone on a low after blowing a 16-point halftime lead. And they would have faced a hungry Saints team looking to tie up the NFC South.
Sometimes one catch does chance the course of a season. And Kelly’s did on that day.
Next: Gruden goes for it and puts it all on the line.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. An award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he appears frequently on Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.