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Sport: 'I never had a doubt that we would win': Bucs pull off ugly victory against Cowboys in final seconds of NFL opener

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TAMPA – Like great teams often do, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a game on Thursday night that they had every right to lose.

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrate after a touchdown in the second quarter. © Jeremy Reper, USA TODAY Sports Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrate after a touchdown in the second quarter.

In a phrase it was this: Buc-Ugly.

Bad hands. Bad penalties. Bad coverage. This was part of the story that nearly led to an embarrassing disaster as the Bucs opened defense of their Super Bowl crown with a 31-29 verdict against the Dallas Cowboys that had a lot of good fortune wrapped around that championship grit and another last-minute game-winning drive engineered by Tom Brady.

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The Bucs had four turnovers, 11 penalties and at least a half-dozen dropped passes. They were scorched by Dak Prescott for 403 yards, converted less than half of their third downs. They were outgained in total yards. Lost the time-of-possession measure, too.

Yet they still won. Maybe it didn’t all add up, except when you realize you still have a chance to win with Brady getting one last drive.

When someone asked Bucs coach Bruce Arians what he thought when the Bucs, trailing by one, got the football back with 1:24 on the clock, he said, “I never had a doubt that we would win the game.”

Now that it’s over, though, the straight-shooting coach sure has plenty of fresh material to hammer home messages about what it will take to make another championship run – and how that was not consistently on display at Raymond James Stadium, where they celebrated the Super Bowl LV crown during pregame festivities.

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“I learned a long time ago that you don’t learn anything more from losing than you do from almost losing,” Arians said. “We have a lot to learn. Obviously, not pleased with the start of the game. Loved the finish. Our guys are winners.”

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And winners find ways to claim victory despite being on the ropes. Brady demonstrated that as much as anyone. He threw two picks and was nearly upstaged by Prescott, who played for the first time since suffering a gruesome ankle injury last October. But he also threw for four touchdowns and was spot-on when he needed to be on the final drive, which culminated with Ryan Succop’s 36-yard field goal with two seconds left.

“Not a perfect game,” said Brady, who completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards and was never sacked. “Obviously, a lot to kind of unpack from this one.”

From the half-full department: Brady connected with Antonio Brown for a 47-yard touchdown that quickly got the lead back in the second quarter, found Rob Gronkowski for a couple of touchdowns (that’s 100, including the playoffs, for the big tight end). And there were other sweet passes that didn’t show up in the box score. Early in the game, he dropped a tear-drop dime to Brown for an over-the-shoulder sideline catch. Late in the game, he found Leonard Fournette — or rather Fournette found the ball, leaping above the defender as if snagging a rebound — to save Brady and the Bucs. At least temporarily.

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Minutes later, with the Bucs seemingly in control and marching toward the end zone, Chris Godwin caught a pass inside the 10 and spun forward to the goal line. Yet Godwin, who minutes earlier dropped a deep third-down strike, fumbled to give the Cowboys a revival.

Dallas scratched out a drive that resulted in Greg Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal to give the Cowboys a 29-28 lead with 1:29 remaining.

“Obviously, you never want to put your team in a compromising position like that,” Godwin said of his late-game turnover. “But I’m grateful that I had an opportunity to redeem myself."

Done. His 24-yard catch on a sideline stop route set up the game-winning kick. Bucs win. But whew.

Of course, Brady, the 44-year-old beginning his 22nd NFL season, has been here before. Someone told him that the game marked the 40th fourth-quarter back back victory of his career. He pretty shrugged it off.

“I’ve played a long time,” he said. “A lot of football.”

Gronkowski knows. His 11-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was classic Brady. It came after the quarterback improvised and twice called checks to switch his tight end’s assignment on the third-down play. In the end, Gronkowski stayed into block initially and then released to post up in the middle at the goal line while Brady scooted out of the pocket before arching a pass for his 6-foot, 7-inch target.

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“No, that was not by design,” Brady said. “There were a lot of things that were off on that play.”

Yet there were a lot of things that were on, allowing the Bucs to score a touchdown rather than settle for a field-goal attempt.

“I was like, ‘Oh, man. He just sees it all on the field,’ “ said Gronkowski, who caught eight passes for 90 yards. “It’s impressive. The guy has been playing for 80 years. He’s seen every defense, every play. He’s seen so many fronts, too. And he saw it, he read it well.”

It was that kind of a night for the Bucs. Not always pretty. But sufficient enough.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'I never had a doubt that we would win': Bucs pull off ugly victory against Cowboys in final seconds of NFL opener

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