A Giant headache
The Buccaneers may be remembered this season as the close-but-no-cigar team of the National Football League. Need to escape with your lives in the final seconds, as the New York Giants did Sunday? HavaTampa. Discarded quarterback Phil Simms did just that when he came off the bench smoking. On the final drive, Simms completed seven consecutive passes, the last one a touchdown to Stephen Baker with 16 seconds left that gave the Giants a dramatic 21-14 victory over the Bucs.

It was a dispiriting loss for Tampa Bay, which clinched its ninth consecutive 10-loss season. "What sticks in your mind is the time you don't make the plays," Bucs running back Reggie Cobb said. "When they got the ball deep in their own territory, they made the game-winning drive. We had an opportunity to do the same thing, and we couldn't make it happen."

Simms' heroics highlighted a 90-yard drive in 1 minute, 25 seconds against the backpedaling Bucs defense. More importantly, the Giants avoided a costly stumble on the road to the playoffs. But New York paid a heavy price for its victory. Starting quarterback Jeff Hostetler was knocked out of the game early in the third quarter after a hit by Bucs linebacker Broderick Thomas. Hostetler sustained a transverse process fracture in his lower back and was expected to remain overnight Sunday at St. Joseph's Hospital. Doctors said there was no neurological damage, but Hostetler may be out for the season.

Linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who registered one sack and his usual terror in the opposing backfield, sustained a sprained knee ligament early in the second quarter. He is expected to miss at least a couple of weeks. The Giants also were forced to play at times without starting cornerback Mark Collins (bruised ribs) and starting offensive tackle Doug Riesenberg (sprained ankle). But while the Bucs physically beat up the Giants, it wasn't enough to keep them from getting beat on the game's final drive.

Simms, who had thrown only two passes this season before Sunday, replaced the injured Hostetler with 9:37 left in the third quarter. Simms finished 10-of-14 for 100 yards, but most of his damage came on the final drive, when every pass seemed to have eyes. The 36-year-old veteran was 7-of-7 for 86 yards on the drive, including the deep route to Baker over oft-burnt Tampa Bay cornerback Alonzo Hampton.

Hampton was making his first start for the Bucs in place of Carl Carter, who was inactive Sunday with an ankle injury. Hampton was picked on early and often and fared poorly at times in bump-and-run coverage. "The last play, we're in a blitz," Hampton said. "He just ran a takeoff and I missed him at the line, and he made a good catch. I figured they would come at me a lot and test me because it was my first start. But that's what I get paid to do, play one-on-one coverage. I just didn't get the job done on the last play."

Much of the credit belonged to Simms, who never squawked despite being bypassed by new coach Ray Handley in favor of Hostetler. Simms appeared to be in total control from the time he entered the game until he was mobbed by teammates after the winning touchdown. "I was excited," Simms said. "I was comfortable. I saw things I wanted to."

What Simms saw was the Bucs blow a golden opportunity to win the game just a few minutes before the Giants' winning drive. Tampa Bay's defense, led by Thomas (two sacks) and Dexter Manley (one sack), held the Giants to 146 total yards until the final drive. Meanwhile, quarterback Vinny Testaverde shook off the weariness of seven sacks to throw a game-tying 19-yard touchdown pass to Willie Drewrey with six minutes left. "He got knocked around and scrambled with the ball and made some plays," Bucs coach Richard Williamson said of Testaverde. "He took some licks and stayed right in there."

Testaverde finished 16-of-27 for 122 yards and was intercepted twice. But the Bucs' offense would've been nowhere without Cobb, who led all rushers with 110 yards on 22 attempts, including a 27-yard touchdown run. Cobb and the Bucs were in control of the ball and their fate after he bulled for a first down at the Giants' 47 with 1:59 left. "I think all of us were thinking this is the moment of our life to beat the champs and just go after it with everything we had," Bucs tackle Rob Taylor said. "The good teams will make it happen, just like they did at the end."

But the Bucs couldn't make it happen. Two running plays gained only a yard, and Testaverde's pass on a scramble to Terry Anthony nearly was intercepted. "We're still fighting for a touchdown," Testaverde said. "I told the guys, `This game is ours. We've got it.' We just needed to make a first down. It came down to that third-down play."

But the Bucs were forced to punt, and Simms hit the seven consecutive completions, six after a 4-yard run by Dave Meggett, to move the Giants 90 yards. The Bucs' defensive collapse was reminiscent of their loss at Green Bay earlier this season in which they blew an eight-point lead in the final four minutes. Or of the Bucs' loss last season to Dallas before a sellout crowd at Tampa Stadium. Or of any other near-miss against the NFL's tougher teams (see Chicago, Sept. 8; see Buffalo, Sept. 22). "I don't think today when our defense lined up and they had 90 yards to go that they were afraid that they were going to go 90 yards, like maybe they have in the past," Williamson said. "I think they felt sure they would stop them and not let them make the plays to get down the field. Obviously, that didn't happen."

So the Bucs played well and lost, and the Giants played poorly and won. One more game that went up in smoke. "It's a catch-22," Cobb said. "We've played well against the good teams and haven't won. We played some teams that weren't up to their caliber and played terrible. We have to play consistently every week. If we play the way we did today, we win more than we lose."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1991