“I knew I scored,” said Clayton, whose 8-yard touchdown reception with 35 seconds remaining gave the previously winless Bucs a 14-13 victory over the fuming Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
“It was our time,” he added. “This team has been through so much.”
Clayton’s TD—his first in 19 games—was ruled an incomplete pass before the call was overturned by replay, which showed the receiver had control of the ball when he extended his arms.
The Bengals (3-2) thought they had won when Clayton put the nose of the ball over the goal line on the fourth-down play only to have it knocked loose when he landed on the ground. Referee Mike Carey reversed the call, setting off a wild celebration on the home sideline.
“We know it’s only one win and this is not the NFC championship,” Bucs defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere, and we start with this.”
The winning TD capped a rollercoaster performance for rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, making his second start for Tampa Bay in place of the injured Chris Simms. The sixth-round draft pick also threw a 2-yard TD pass to Alex Smith, but spent much of the day looking like the inexperienced player he is.
Carson Palmer threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Shayne Graham kicked two field goals for Cincinnati. The Bengals marched into Bucs territory in the closing seconds, but Graham’s 62-yard field goal attempt as time expired was short and off the mark.
The Bucs (1-4) avoided their first 0-5 start since 1996 and snapped Cincinnati’s 8-game winning streak against NFC opponents.
Gradkowski completed 25 of 44 passes for 184 yards and one interception. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams rushed for 94 yards on 19 carries, including a 38-yard burst that set up Tampa Bay’s first touchdown in the third quarter.
The Bucs drove 54 yards in nine plays after a punt for the winning score. Gradkowski had a 15-yard completion to Clayton, as well as a pair of 10-yarders to Michael Pittman. But the key to the march—as far as the Bengals were concerned—was the roughing-the-passer call that wiped out a fumble on a sack by Bengals defensive end Justin Smith.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a roughing-the-passer on a sack,” Palmer said. “We all need to go see the film on that.”
Instead facing second-and-18 from the 40, the Bucs continued the decisive drive with a first down at the Cincinnati 25.
“I couldn’t believe it. That was the ballgame,” Smith said. “I didn’t slam him or anything like that. He just doubled over and fumbled the ball. … It’s pretty hard to do anything to him if you can’t touch him.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis thought the call was curious, too.
“I guess you’ve got to cuddle him to the ground,” Lewis said.
Despite averaging nearly 25 points in their first four games, the Bengals entered their bye week following a lopsided loss to New England concerned about a lack of consistency on offense. Palmer’s production is down, Cincinnati has not been able to get Chad Johnson into the end zone as much as usual and injuries on the offensive line have affected pass protection and the running game.
The Bengals, who had one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses a year ago, were held to one touchdown and 13 points for the second straight game.
“We’re not throwing the ball like we did last year. We’re not running the ball like we did last year,” Houshmandzadeh said. “If you can’t do at least one or the other, we’re in trouble. … We’re just not putting up points. Bottom line.”
Palmer was 24-of-37 for 261 yards, no interceptions and two sacks. Houshmandzadeh caught his TD pass over All-Pro cornerback Ronde Barber in the second quarter and finished with 10 receptions for 102 yards.
With receiver Chris Henry beginning a two-game suspension for violating NFL policies on conduct and substance abuse, Johnson responded for the Bengals with six catches for 99 yards, including a 51-yarder—his longest reception of the year—to set up a 47-yard field goal for a 13-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals lost to a NFC opponent for the first time since Dec. 21, 2003—a 27-10 setback at St. Louis. … Johnson became the fourth Bengal with 400 career receptions, joining Carl Pickens, Cris Collinsworth and Isaac Curtis. … DT/DE Ellis Wyms had both of Tampa Bay’s sacks.