TAMPA, Fla., Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Martin Gramatica hit the right upright with a 48-yard field goal attempt on the game's final play Sunday, allowing the Chicago Bears to escape with a 27-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Enduring a charmed season that has seen them rise from a cellar dwellar to first place in the NFC Central, the Bears have participated in some wild games this season and Sunday was no different.
Holding a 27-24 lead, the Bears appeared to have put the game away when safety Tony Parrish intercepted Brad Johnson and returned the ball to the Tampa Bay 26 with 1:53 remaining.
But on the first play after the turnover, Bears rookie running back Anthony Thomas fumbled Jim Miller's handoff. Chicago managed to recover, however, and Miller took a knee on three straight plays, giving the Buccaneers the ball back at their own 31 with 18 seconds left.
Johnson, working without a timeout, found Warrick Dunn for 14 yards on first down. He found Dunn for eight yards on the next play and the Bucs' running back was hit out of bounds by cornerback R.W. McQuarters for a roughing penalty, moving the ball to the Chicago 31 with six seconds left.
Gramatica, who made three field goals earlier in the game and was 14 of 16 on the season, came on for the potential tying kick. But he watched in despair as the ball bounced off the right upright.
"There was no wind out there," Gramatica said. "I was hoping it would drift because it was going straight at the upright. There is nothing worse than with your whole team depending on you. There is no excuse. Right now it doesn't feel I can do it, but I will come back. Something this team does, we stick together."
Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp had confidence Gramatica would convert.
"I definitely would have bet my life that was going through the uprights," he said.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher also thought the game was headed for overtime.
"I thought here we go again into overtime," Urlacher said. "Finally, we got a break and didn't have to go into overtime. It was nice to finally get a win that way."
The finish was another chapter in the storybook season for the Bears, who earlier this year erased a 19-point deficit in the second half before beating San Francisco in overtime. The next week, they scored two touchdowns in the final 28 seconds of regulation and beat Cleveland in overtime.
"Somebody around here has got a rabbit foot in their back pocket, but hold on to it because we've got a long way to go," Bears offensive tackle James Williams said.
Marty Booker had touchdown receptions of 28, 45 and 66 yards for the Bears (7-2), who moved into first place in the Central, one game ahead of Green Bay.
Johnson established a team record for completions, going 40 of 56 for 399 yards and two interceptions for the disappointing Bucs (4-5).
"This was a tough loss. It was tough to lose a crucial division game at home," Johnson said. "We didn't score touchdowns in the red zone, but I thought we did a great job of fighting."
With Miller and Booker hooking up on their long scores, the Bears built a 24-9 lead entering the fourth quarter. But things became interesting over the final 15 minutes.
The Bucs moved 78 yards in 11 plays and fullback Mike Alstott barrelled over from one yard for a touchdown with 12:25 remaining, pulling the Bucs within 24-16.
That was one of the few runs that went anywhere for Alstott, who carried four times for two yards. Dunn also was bottled up, gaining 12 yards on eight attempts.
It was a huge afternoon for the Bears' linebacking corps of Urlacher and Warrick Holdman. Urlacher had 14 tackles and a sack and Holdman finished with 13 tackles.
After the Bucs forced a Chicago punt, Tampa Bay normally conservative coach Tony Dungy turned aggressive.
Facing a fourth and six at their own 25, the Bucs tried a fake punt and Mark Royals completed a pass to Aaron Stecker, who was stopped two yards short of the first down, giving Chicago the ball in scoring position.
Anthony Thomas picked up eight yards on three running plays and Paul Edinger came on and kicked a 40-yard field goal with 6:59 to play, giving Chicago a 27-16 advantage.
Johnson led the Bucs down the field on the ensuing drive and scored on a one-yard sneak. He found Alstott for the conversion, slicing the deficit to 27-24 with 2:29 left.
The Bucs came up big on the defensive side of the ball on the next possession, holding Chicago to a three-and-out.
But taking over on his own 31 with 2:01 left, Johnson faced a blitz and had his pass intended over the middle for Keyshawn Johnson intercepted by Parrish.
Johnson's 40 completions were nine more than Vinny Testaverde's mark for the club record, established in the 1989 season.
Dunn and Keyshawn Johnson each had huge receiving games. Dunn had 12 catches for 138 yards and and Keyshawn Johnson 12 for 89.
The NFC's leading receiver, Keyshawn Johnson has 71 catches for 834 yards this season but is still looking for his first touchdown.
Gramatica provided the early lead for the Bucs, hitting a 25-yard field goal into the first quarter. He connected from 38 yards just over a minute into the second period, making it 6-0.
The Bears finally solved the Tampa Bay defense with 8:21 left in the first half, when Miller found Booker with a 28-yard touchdown pass to give Chicago the lead.
It was the Bears' first offensive touchdown against Tampa Bay since the second quarter on Nov. 29, 1998 -- a span of 65 possessions.
Tampa Bay moved inside the Bears' 10 in the final minute of the half, but had to settle for Gramatica's 26-yard field goal and 9-7 advantage at the half.
The Bucs' inability to get into the end zone proved costly as Chicago's offense exploded in the third quarter.