Brian Griese did it again Sunday. Just as he had done in New Orleans two months earlier, just as he has been doing all season, he had kept the Bucs' hopes alive. Having already thrown for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns, he was the biggest reason the Bucs were still in a position to win when he dropped back to pass with just more than four minutes to play.
Within seconds, though, Griese became just one of the many reasons why the Bucs went on to drop a 31-24 decision to the Chargers that all but knocked them out of the mind-boggling NFC wild-card race. Griese's pass went into the arms of Chargers linebacker Donnie Edwards, who returned the ball 30 yards for what proved to be the game- deciding touchdown. ``He's the reason we were even in it to this point,'' Ronde Barber said of Griese and the playoff race. ``But at the same time, there have been a lot of mistakes at the position. There have been a lot of mistakes all around.''
Sunday was another one of those mistake-filled days for the Bucs. Though he threw for 392 yards, Griese was intercepted three times and he fumbled the ball away after being sacked once. The Bucs also lost 111 yards on penalties, and in a performance that rekindled memories of exiled place-kicker Martin Gramatica, Jay Taylor blew a scoring chance by clanging a 30-yard field goal try off the top of the left upright. ``Those are traits of how this team has played all year,'' Barber said. ``We're not losing games. We're just finding ways to beat ourselves. We're finding ways to kick our own butts.''
The Bucs (5-8) have good reason to kick themselves now. By losing Sunday, they blew a chance to move into a virtual tie with Carolina (6-7) and St. Louis (6-7) for the last NFC wild-card berth. The good news for Tampa Bay is that several other NFC playoff contenders also lost Sunday. As a result, the Bucs still have an outside chance of reaching the postseason. But they can no longer do that simply by winning the rest of their games. ``As crazy as it seems we're still in the playoff hunt,'' Derrick Brooks said. ``But we can't think about that. We just have to worry about beating New Orleans next week and let the playoff picture take care of itself.''
That the Bucs have all but faded from that picture is due in large part to the mistakes they've made this year in turning the ball over, committing penalties and wasting scoring chances. But there's more to it than that. The Bucs defense, for example, has struggled to stop the run throughout this season and Sunday was another day in which opposing runners had their way. LaDainian Tomlinson, who was averaging 3.7 yards per carry coming into Sunday's game, produced 5.2 yards per run while carrying 25 times for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs.
A problem right from the very start, Tomlinson ran for 14 yards on the first play of the game and proceeded to break off runs of 10, 10, and 35 yards before calling it a day. ``We missed some tackles early on against him but for the most part he just hit some holes against us,'' Brooks said of Tomlinson. ``We were in our cover 2 [base] defense, and he just hit the right gap.''
Tomlinson wasn't the only Charger finding open gaps in the Bucs defense. Wide receiver Eric Parker found one early in the second quarter while hauling in what proved to be a 79-yard Drew Brees touchdown pass. ``We just had a breakdown in the secondary,'' said Barber, who was beaten, along with fellow cornerback Brian Kelly and safety Dwight Smith on the play. ``We didn't rotate the coverage well enough and it cost us.''
The cost was a 7-0 deficit. But the Bucs quickly closed the gap, scoring themselves on a 36-yard pass from Griese to Joey Galloway. The Chargers, however, regained the lead after Taylor's missed field goal. Moving 80 yards in 10 plays, San Diego took a 14-7 lead just before the half when Brees hit receiver Kassim Osgood with a pass after Osgood had outmaneuvered Kelly. ``I'm not going to blame any one individual for the big plays against us,'' Brooks said. ``We as a defense take the blame as a whole for those big plays that happen against us.''
The offense could also spread the blame around Sunday. While Griese turned the ball over four times, he was forced into a one-dimensional passing mode when the running game was unable to get going against a tough Chargers defense. ``I thought we ran the ball pretty well early on but they threw a lot of eight- and nine- man fronts at us and had a lot of linebackers at the line against us,'' running back Michael Pittman said.
The result was a rushing attack that produced just 63 yards. That and the other mistakes put the Bucs into a must- throw situation that ended in predictable fashion. ``I can't come out and throw those interceptions and we can't have all those penalties,'' Griese said. ``When you combine that with our [inability] to run the ball, well, you just can't do that on the road in this league and expect to win. It's that simple.''