The legends of the fall were roaming the sideline at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, running out of the tunnel to blasting cannons and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Simeon Rice — they all stood shoulder-to-shoulder as part of a 10-year anniversary of the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII championship team. But on a day when the Bucs honored greatness, the men of the moment could not even rise to mediocrity.
Tampa Bay blew a 10-point lead to the Philadelphia Eagles in the final 3:55 and lost when rookie quarterback Nick Foles hit Jeremy Maclin on a 1-yard touchdown pass as time expired, the 23-21 defeat delivering a crushing blow to the Bucs' playoff hopes.
It was the third straight loss (by a total of 11 points) for the Bucs (6-7), who fell two games behind Seattle (8-5) and a game behind Dallas, Washington and Minnesota (7-6) for the final NFC wild card.
Foles, making his fourth start, passed for 381 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions while snapping the eight-game losing streak of the Eagles (4-9). Perhaps Bucs coach Greg Schiano got caught up in the nostalgia Sunday.
Leading 21-16 and facing third and 8 at the Tampa Bay 33-yard line with 2:55 left and the Eagles with one timeout, Schiano took the game out of the hands of quarterback Josh Freeman and into those of his 32nd-ranked pass defense.
Playing it safe, rookie Doug Martin — who rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown — gained nothing on a run up the middle, forcing a punt and setting up the winning touchdown march.
"There's two ways to play it," Schiano said. "You can try to throw the ball. We decided to run the ball and make them use their timeout or let it tick. My thinking was if we can punt the ball away and we get a stop, the game is over and they've got no timeouts."
Instead of a game-sealing interception by Lynch, as Bucs fans came to expect in 2002, unheralded cornerback Danny Gorrer dropped a pick three plays before the winning touchdown that would have sealed the win.
'It seemed like it was right there and I kind of got excited, you know, I didn't look it all the way in," Gorrer said. "I've got to make that play."
Instead of Sapp collapsing the pocket on fourth and 5 from the Tampa Bay 23, Foles — who was sacked six times — stepped up and drilled a dart to Jason Avant to the 1-yard line, then spiked the ball to kill the clock with two seconds left.
Foles came to the sideline insisting on a sprintout pass to Maclin, which worked to perfection. "Well listen, he wanted that last play," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "He called it, he wanted it, he executed it. It was a play we had put in the game plan, in that situation, but that's the one he liked the best. He was feeling it."
Not feeling it most of the day was Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, who had a poor first half, completing 5 of 16 passes for 61 yards. He finished 14-of-34 for 189 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
"It just seemed like he wasn't himself, he wasn't in synch," Schiano said of Freeman. "I don't think we were tense," Freeman said. "Whatever it was, we were just a hair off."
The Bucs trailed 10-0 at halftime, then got a gift to start the third quarter. Damaris Johnson muffed Michael Koenen's punt and the Bucs took over on the Eagles 5. Three plays later, Freeman hit wide receiver Mike Williams in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, Freeman got more of a hot hand and receiver Vincent Jackson took over the game. Jackson, who finished with six catches for 131 yards and a touchdown, beat cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to the inside for a 13-yard scoring pass. And his 28-yard reception on the next series set up Martin's 4-yard touchdown and gave the Bucs a 21-10 lead with 7:21 left in the game.
But Foles led a pair of touchdown drives on the final two possessions. "It's not easy to keep your poise when you're getting hit all day as a rookie," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had a Sapp-like two sacks, three tackles for a loss and three hits on Foles. "This a special game … it's a big win for us," Foles said. "The emotions are going crazy right now.''
The Super Bowl XXXVII champions could not help the Bucs, not even safety Ronde Barber, the only member of that team still playing. "It was nice to see all those guys, but it had nothing to do with the product on the field," Barber said. "So it doesn't hurt more or less. It's 2012, and that was 10 years ago. They celebrated, rightfully, but it has nothing to do with this 2012 team."