New Math Has Bucs Alive, But Everyone Knows Better
It's not over! They're mathematically alive! So's Arafat!

The Bucs died a thousand times Sunday. They lost one of the all-timers. ``That was like the old orange,'' age-old Buc Dave Moore said.

It had to end this way. True, it also had to begin this way, with ex-Buc Aaron Stecker falling on his butt - before racing for a Saints touchdown on the opening kickoff. But mostly it had to end this way - the stunning collapse, the blown 10-point lead, one more killer turnover, a New Orleans seconds-left touchdown, the Bucs more horrible than even the horrible National Football Conference in a 21-17 loss that still refused to eliminate them.

Now 5-9 and the first team in history to follow a Super Bowl win with consecutive losing seasons, the new math refuses to eliminate Tampa Bay from playoff contention, though I think the guy doing the calculating took the math portion of my SAT. It still can happen for the Bucs. All it would take is two wins, everyone else losing and the Virgin Mother appearing on the ham sandwich Jon Gruden is choking on at lunch today.

It's hard to imagine a bigger gag than Sunday. 'Twas the week before Christmas and Jolly Old St. Tiebreaker had loaded his rusty sleigh with presents. Not a creature was stirring, particularly any Ram. Visions of Michael Vick danced in Panthers' heads.

After all the disasters, Bucs playoff fever was running a red-hot 98.8. It was breaking the home team's way in the broken-down conference. They looked home free against the Saints, up 17-7 with four minutes left. All that stood between the Bucs and the postseason were wins against Carolina and Arizona. They controlled their destiny. Then somebody slipped destiny a laxative. ``A horrible, horrible defeat,'' said Gruden, who became the first Bucs head coach since Sam-dash- Wyche to have back-to-back losing seasons. Gruden's team dominated from the time of Stecker's touchdown to the final three minutes. In a game they had to win, they had no business losing.

For a flickering moment, it looked as if Gruden and fledgling Bucs GM Bruce Allen were going to make some of us a plate of crow, though at 8-8, can you really make anyone eat crow? We knew all along we were a .500 team. Maybe Lean Cuisine Crow. A horrible, horrible defeat. A night dipped in orange. The Bucs looked a gift horse in the mouth and still wound up coming out the other end.

They gave back a game to the normally spineless wonders from New Orleans, who have no more right to the playoffs than the Bucs. It went beyond Mike Alstott's ghastly fumble, Brian Griese's horrible interception or the back- breaker, Michael Pittman's fumble that might not have been a fumble. But this was no illusion, and defeat was not an orphan. Everyone contributed, including the defense, brilliant until it melted when needed most. Questionable fumble? The Bucs coughed up games like this all season. For two seasons. Where I come from, that's called a pattern.

The Bucs even managed to throw in some NFC South frontier justice. Carolina lost to Atlanta because it couldn't stop Vick on fourth-and-12. Nineteen hours later, the Bucs couldn't stop Aaron Brooks on fourth-and-12. A fitting end. But wait! The playoffs! The new math! ``We don't deserve to be there,'' Ronde Barber said. Big fat zeros.

Martin Fennelly The Tampa Tribune 20 December 2004