Scoring at will in the last nine minutes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers "totaled" Kansas City today, 3-0, and a crowd of 63,624 went bananas after a month of suspense.
"We is the champions of the Central Division," a recomposed John McKay said after a week of chastising media for suggesting his charges were "chokers."
"We outscored them (the Chiefs), 3-0, on a beautiful Florida day," he went on, alluding to a torrential rain.
Neil O'Donoghue kicked a 19-yard field goal with 8 minutes 50 seconds remaining and the Buccaneer offense let the clock run out on the Kansas City three-yard line on the last play of the game, rather than risk a fumble in the mud.
At the finish the message board operator had his laugh at the expense of Hillsborough County's team when he flashed in lights. "The Big Bad Bucs."
O'Donoghue qualified at 6 feet 6, with the size 10 1/2 shoe he put into the ball for the three points, with Tom Blanchard holding, after they had flubbed a 32-yard attempt in the first quarter that had them sprouting goat horns.
Blanchard said afterward that he simply mishandled center Steve Wilson's snap. O'Donoghue retrieved the ball and took a five-yard loss, thus turning the ball over the Chiefs on the fourth-down play.
O'Donoghue said the Bucs were prepared in case of a bad snap on his game-winning field goal. "I waited a split second, until Blanchard got the ball down, before I kicked. We didn't want to let the ball get away from us if it went bad, but it was a perfect snap."
O'Donoghue said McKay seemed to hesitate a split second on whether to go for the field goal on fourth and two from the Kansas City two-yard line, or whether to go for a touchdown on a run in the mud.
"I wanted to kick," O'Donoghue said, "and the coach said, 'Kick it . . . kick it through.'"
The Buccaneers were fortunate to have this particular kicker for today. O'Donoghue's U.S. visa ran out during a summer visit to his native Ireland. A cleric in Birmingham, Ala., helped the former Auburn player get it renewed.
Besides getting himself and ball holder Blanchard off the hook with the game-winner, O'Donoghue saved running back Jerry Eckwood embarrassment, prominently among the rest of the Buccaneers.
In the second quarter, Eckwood took a pitchout from quarterback Doug Williams, got excellent blocks from three teammates and apparently was on his way to a touchdown. But he fumbled without being hit after a 29-yard gain and cornerback M. L. Carter of the Chiefs recovered on the Kansas City 28.
Eckwood said afterward, "The ball was wet and my jersey was wet and it just popped out as I squeezed it while I was getting away from one of my blockers (tight end Jim Obradovich).
"I didn't worry about it too much, or I might have done it again. I knew it was because of the rain. There were lots of balls on the ground today (five fumbles by Tampa Bay, four of those recovered by the Bucs, and two lost by Kansas City). At halftime, the coach said to us, 'It (the victory) is right there in your hands to take'."
Williams connected on only five of 13 passes, was intercepted twice, the 10th and 11th times in the last three games, and was sacked once. But his throws put the ball in position for the winning field goal.
Ricky Bell enabled the Buccaneers to keep possession as he carried the ball 39 times for 137 yards in the treacherous underfooting.
In a 63-yard drive that started at the end of the third quarter, Williams passed 17 yards to tight end Jimmie Giles, Bell ran for 12 and the quarterback then made a difficult throw, purposely low to avoid an interception, complete to Giles for a seven-yard gain to the Kansas City nine.
A pitchout to Eckwood netted four yards, Bell was held to three yards in two smashes, and McKay went for the field goal from the two-yard line.
Williams said of McKay's decision and play-calling, which included seven runs by the quarterback for 25 yards, mostly on bootlegs: "That lets you know just what kind of a coach he is. If I was with any of the other 27 clubs, I wouldn't have played today.
"I thank Coach McKay for having the confidence in me today. If he had pulled me I would have agreed with him, I'd be the first to agree with him, the way things had been going.
"I can't say enough for Neil (O'Donoghue). He took a lot of the pressure and the criticism like me the last few weeks. They (rhetorically speaking) taught me about critics -- they are people who have never been in the same position, down on the field. People who have played the game understand. s
Defensive back Danny Reece came closest to articulating the attitude of the disparaged Buccaneers: "We didn't score much, but we won't go home now and know that the rest of the NFL is laughing at us. We're in the playoffs and they're saying, 'Oh, no. Now they've got to watch us on TV. Hah!
"If we had gone into overtime, they (the Chiefs) wouldn't have scored on us, anyway."
As one diehard critic put it, "The Bucs had to play .250 ball in the last month to make the playoffs, and they rose to it."