INDIANAPOLIS – The task was not going to be easy. On the opposite sideline was the best defense in the NFL. The Buccaneers defense was fresh off a Super Bowl season in which it became the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the league in total defense, points allowed and interceptions. Six All-Pro picks from 2002 started on the Buccaneers defense for the Monday Night game against the Colts, including eight of the 11 starters from the Super Bowl XXXVII win over the Oakland Raiders.
The Colts entered Raymond James Stadium with a 4-0 record, which was their best start since the 1996 season. Going up against one of the greatest defenses in NFL history was a test in itself, but the Colts would also be doing it without Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James who was out with an injury. The Colts offense was meeting a Buccaneers defense that whitewashed Philadelphia in a 17-0 win in week one. Carolina mustered only four field goals in game two against Tampa Bay, and the only touchdown the club's defense yielded against Atlanta in the third game was a three-play, two-yard drive after an offensive turnover.
The game also marked the return to Tampa Bay for Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy. Dungy led the Buccaneers from 1996-2001, and his return was significant because of the beloved stature he had created in the community. Ironically, he would be celebrating his 48th birthday that evening.
The Monday Night contest would get off to a nightmarish start for the Colts as they punted on their first five possessions, while the Buccaneers struck early and often.
On the Buccaneers' first play of their second offensive possession, quarterback Rob Johnson hit wide receiver Keenan McCardell for a 74-yard touchdown reception and a 7-0 advantage.
The first "I don't believe what I just saw" moment of the game came on the next Tampa Bay series when Colts safety Mike Doss intercepted Johnson. During the return, Bucs center John Wade stripped Doss of the ball and McCardell picked up the fumble and returned it 57 yards for a touchdown. The stunning play put Tampa Bay up, 14-0.
As the Colts were stymied again offensively, the Bucs scored a touchdown on a third consecutive series. Johnson found wide receiver Reggie Barlow on a three-yard score that put the Colts behind, 21-0. It was a methodical march that covered 71 yards in 11 plays.
The Colts and Bucs punted to each other on the next three possessions before Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica missed a 60-yard field goal at the halftime gun.
Tampa Bay dominated the statistics to that point, amassing 239 net yards to the Colts' 86. Quarterback Peyton Manning completed 11 passes for only 66 yards, while Johnson was 14-of-21 for 189 yards and two scores. Tampa Bay held a 12-4 advantage in first downs.
Down three touchdowns to start the second half, the Colts offense finally found its rhythm on the opening drive of the third quarter as Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison hooked up for a 37-yard score.
However, after the teams traded punts the deficit would be right back at 21 when McCardell scored his third touchdown of the evening on a 15-yard touchdown reception with 1:14 remaining in the third quarter. The score ended an 85-yard drive that had 12 plays and drained 7:28 off the clock. Tampa Bay would hold the ball for 9:48 of the quarter.
The Colts would answer the McCardell touchdown quickly, driving 75 yards in 2:59, finished off by running back Ricky Williams' one-yard touchdown run. It was 28-14 Tampa Bay with 12:01 left in the game.
Any momentum the Colts had was relinquished momentarily on their next possession when Manning was intercepted by Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber. Barber returned the theft 29 yards for a touchdown making the score 35-14 with 5:09 remaining.
Needing a jolt of momentum, Indianapolis got it on the ensuing kickoff when returner Brad Pyatt raced 90 yards to the Tampa Bay 12.
Taking the field with 4:54 remaining and down by 21 points, Manning was about to embark on the first comeback of that proportion with so little time available in NFL history.
On a fourth-and-one from the Bucs three-yard line, running back James Mungro ran straight up the middle for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 35-21.
Kicker Mike Vanderjagt executed an onside kick that was recovered by safety Idrees Bashir, giving the Colts possession at their 42-yard line with 3:37 remaining.
Manning hit passes to wide receiver Troy Walters (15 yards), Harrison (11 yards) and Williams (zero and nine yards) before facing a fourth-and-six from the Tampa Bay 28 with 2:38 to go. Manning coolly hit Harrison for the 28-yard payoff and Indianapolis trailed, 35-28, with 2:29 remaining.
This time a Vanderjagt onside kick did not work and Tampa Bay took possession at the Colts' 45-yard line. Indianapolis stopped Tampa Bay for no gain on a first-down rush and took its third timeout with 2:22 to go. A rush for a two-yard loss came on second down and was followed by a post-whistle unnecessary roughness penalty on Tampa Bay with 2:04 left. The penalty stopped the clock, and the fateful call saved valuable time for the Colts. Tampa Bay rushed on third down to move the clock to the two-minute warning, then punted. A second punt was needed when the teams each were detected holding on the first effort. The fortunate off-setting call took nine seconds away from Indianapolis, but spared its last chance in regulation.
From his own 15-yard line with no timeouts and 1:41 remaining (a circumstance which the team drilled on at the end of every Thursday practice and for which Dungy would remind Manning and the team in future games in the same situation with the advice, 'Treat it as another day on 56th Street,' where the club trained), Manning would take the Colts on a five-play drive lasting only 1:06. Manning hit Walters for 12 yards and a roughing penalty added 15 yards to the play. From the shotgun, Manning teamed with Harrison for 52 yards to the Tampa Bay six-yard line. Two Williams rushes, the final one from a yard out, ended the drive and the game was tied, 35-35, with 35 seconds remaining.
Once again Gramatica would get a last-second field goal attempt, but his 62-yard try was blocked by Colts defensive tackle Larry Tripplett at the gun. After 70 points in front of a riveted stadium crowd and whatever national television audience remained watching, the Colts and Bucs were headed to overtime. The game on an 82-degree evening with 60 percent humidity now went past midnight. Dungy's birthday present would be delivered a little late.
The Bucs won the coin toss and had the first crack at ending the contest. Johnson led the offense to the Colts 47-yard line where on a fourth-and-one Tampa Bay decided to punt. Bucs punter Tom Tupa was run into by Colts running back Dominic Rhodes resulting in a first down and new life for Johnson and the offense.
The Colts defense would stiffen, only allowing one yard on the next three plays and forcing Tupa's final punt of the night.
Now with 10:33 left in overtime, it was Manning's turn to channel again the momentum the club had created in a wild final four minutes of regulation. On three straight third downs, Manning completed passes to keep the drive going. He teamed with Harrison for eight yards when he needed six. He connected with Reggie Wayne for 16 yards when he needed 11, then he found Walters for nine more when six were needed. Indianapolis now was at the Tampa Bay 47-yard line. A second-down strike of 16 yards to Wayne moved the Colts closer. Three plays later, Indianapolis had a fourth-and-one at the Buccaneers 22-yard line and Vanderjagt trotted out with 3:57 left to try to end the game.
One of the game's most accurate kickers proved to be human as Vanderjagt's 40-yard field goal attempt went wide right.
On a night and early morning where belief had long since been suspended, Indianapolis received the last nod when Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for leaping (contacting a teammate when trying to block a field goal). Vanderjagt had another chance.
Now from 29 yards out, Vanderjagt, who eventually was 37-for-37 on field goals for the season, glanced the attempt off the right upright but between the posts. The historic comeback was complete – Indianapolis 38, Tampa Bay 35.
Down 21 points with less than four minutes to go, the positives vibes on the Colts sideline were not prevalent.
"You're thinking it's going to be an awful plane trip home," center Jeff Saturday said. "We were struggling on our drives and I remember all of a sudden it just clicked and it was like we could do no wrong, big play after big play."
The plane ride back to Indianapolis was preceded by a wonderful moment. In the mayhem of the Colts' locker room, Dungy spoke to his tired troops. When emotion reigned and words almost failed Dungy, as gifted a speaker as he was a coach, it was understandable. His team seized the moment and sang a horribly out-of-tune, but heart-felt version of 'Happy Birthday' to its now 48-year old head coach.
Looking at the post-game box score would tell the story of one of the most evenly-matched games in NFL history. After 70 plus minutes of football in a game that concluded at 12:58 a.m. (ET), the Buccaneers had only one more first down than the Colts (25-24), out-gained Indianapolis by a mere two yards (457-455) and both teams had five touchdowns and 11 penalties.
Manning finished the game 34-for-47 for 386 yards and two touchdowns. He led scoring drives of 73, 75, 12, 57, 85 and 76 yards in the second half and overtime against one of the league's foremost defenses. Harrison ended the night with 11 catches for 176 yards to go along with his two touchdowns.
Colts offensive linemen Ryan Diem did not play in the game due to injury but he will not forget the 35-point fourth quarter and the never-die attitude of his teammates.
"The amount of points that got scored in the last couple of minutes was unbelievable," Diem said. "Some things just kind of fell our way. We got a few calls here and there, but the guys just didn't give up and kept battling, and that's the most important thing. It's not over till it's really over, and they proved that point."