ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals are known for their late starts, but they outdid themselves this time.
"We should just play the second half," said quarterback Neil Lomax, who led St. Louis to 28 fourth-quarter points and erased a 25-point deficit for a 31-28 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday.
It is the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history, according to league records, and the point total tied a team record for fourth-quarter scoring.
Lomax threw three touchdown passes, two to J.T. Smith, and linebacker Niko Noga returned James Wilder's fumble 24 yards for a score--all in a span of 10:41.
"If you talk about an all-time comeback, this is it," said Lomax, who completed 25 of 36 passes for 314 yards. "We've come back from big deficits before, but never 28-3 in the fourth quarter."
Lomax's 17-yard pass to Smith with 2:01 remaining was the game-winner. The Cardinals (3-5) survived a scare when Donald Igwebuike's 53-yard field goal attempt with five seconds to go hit the crossbar and bounced back onto the field.
The Cardinals have outscored their opponents, 94-44, in the fourth quarter this season. St. Louis rebounded from a 13-3 deficit to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 24-13, in the season-opener, nearly came back from a 28-0 halftime deficit before losing, 28-24, to the San Diego Chargers.
Tampa Bay (4-4) entered the fourth quarter with a 28-3 lead as Steve DeBerg, who completed 23 of 37 passes for 303 yards, had touchdown passes to Gerald Carter, Mark Carrier and Jeff Smith. Smith ran three yards for a score with 9:59 left in the third quarter, but then the Tampa Bay offense shut down.
"We're either in not as good shape as I think we are, or we just don't have enough guts to suck it up and get the job done," Buccaneer Coach Ray Perkins said.
Lomax began the fourth-quarter comeback by hitting rookie tight end Robert Awalt with a four-yard touchdown pass with 12:42 remaining. Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, Noga scooped up Wilder's fumble and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown to cut the gap to 28-17.
After a Tampa Bay punt, Lomax drove St. Louis 39 yards in 5 plays and passed 11 yards to Smith for a score with 8:18 remaining.
The Cardinals drove 80 yards in 8 plays for the winning score, with Lomax passes accounting for all but 14 of the yards.
"What can you say about J.T. Smith?" Lomax said of the 10-year veteran who entered the game as the NFL leader in receptions (39) and yards (548). "I've run out of words in my vocabulary to describe him."
A crowd of only 22,449, including 7,613 no-shows perhaps reacting to the announcement last week that Cardinal owner William V. Bidwill probably will move the franchise to another city, watched as St. Louis broke a three-game losing streak.
Not counting a strike game, it was the smallest crowd at Busch Stadium since 21,902 showed up for the 1983 season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.