Bucs Played Hard, But Not Very Smart
Among the 57 different ways San Diego beat the ever-living playoff hopes out of the Buccaneers on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, perhaps most embarrassing of all was how much the visitors helped. With their postseason margin of error already slimmer than Manute Bol, the Bucs returned for the first time to the site of their Super Bowl championship two years ago and looked like a team that deserved nothing more than what it got.

Playoff worthy teams do not throw three interceptions, the final one returned 30 yards by Chargers linebacker Donnie Edwards for a touchdown with four minutes left in a tie game. On their very next possession, playoff teams do not fumble at the 28 to give away three more points.

Playoff teams do not get flagged for 111 yards on 12 penalties, two of them for tripping. Tripping? Even worse, one of those tripping calls - whistled against tight end Ken Dilger - negated a 20-yard field goal by Jay Taylor, who promptly clanked the next one off the left upright from 30. Of course, the Chargers immediately went 80 yards in 10 plays to take a 14-7 lead with 49 seconds left before halftime, scoring on a 19-yard pass from Drew Brees to Kassim Osgood. He beat Bucs defender Brian Kelly in the front, left corner of the end zone after the cornerback appeared in place for an interception.

Playoff teams do not give up 79- yard touchdown passes like the one Brees threw to Eric Parker for the game's first score, a drop- back-and-heave-it toss that fell into the receiver's hands as the Bucs secondary napped. Playoff teams, especially ones that depend on the NFL's third- ranked defense, do not get pounded at the line of scrimmage and give up a 131-yard rushing day, even if the ball carrier is LaDainian Tomlinson.

But there was Tomlinson owning the second half, the ball in his hands and the game on his shoulders, running like he had stolen something. And in a way, he had. He took the Bucs' pride, gobbling up 96 second-half yards that proved San Diego tougher down the stretch. It's just not the traits you see in playoff teams. ``No, but they are traits of this team this year,'' Ronde Barber said.

And so, the Bucs' Dream Comeback Tour from an 0-4 start may have finally come to a Chucky face-scrunching end. They are not clinically dead, but they are on artificial respiration. It was fourth-and-life for the Bucs' season and they played hard, just not very smart. While the charmed-life Chargers won their seventh game in a row to improve to 10-3, the 5-8 Bucs will be assured of their second straight year without a winning record.

As has been the case all too often this season, the day produced a few moments of glory ruined by an overabundance of dumb ones. ``I mean, I can't go out and throw that pick at the end,'' Brian Griese said. ``You can't miss a field goal. You can't have those kinds of penalties. You combine that with the fact we couldn't run the football, it's hard to stay in games on the road like that, especially against good teams like San Diego.''

At times, the Bucs looked so good they were captivating. They tied the game at 14 with a 68-yard, 12- play march in which Griese completed eight of 10 passes and was 4-for-4 in third-down conversions, including the 4-yard scoring toss to Joey Galloway. They tied it again at 21 after the defense forced a Tomlinson fumble and Griese took his team 37 yards in two plays, scoring with a 20-yard strike to Michael Clayton.

Griese finished with 36 completions on 50 attempts for 392 yards and three touchdowns. Clayton had nine receptions - seven of them for first downs - that gained 145 yards. Ten different players caught passes. The Bucs won time of possession by five minutes. Yet, in the end, it all blew up in their faces, death by their own hemlock. ``We've got a good football team,'' Coach Jon Gruden said. ``We've got a couple of players who are getting better. We have a couple of guys who have the opportunity to become great. We are going to keep pounding away and who knows. We've lost some games in just sick, gut-wrenching fashion. Today's another one.''

They have themselves to blame.

Mick Elliott The Tampa Tribune 13 December 2004