Tampa Bay's playoff hopes dim
You knew it was trouble for the Bucs when the biggest game of the season came down to a replay. Hasn't their season been one? Rewind the defeats, and from every angle, they start to look the same. With a small window of opportunity to sneak into the playoffs, a game-changing turnover and defensive collapse lead to another fourth-quarter failure.

It happened again in Sunday's come-from-ahead 21-17 loss to the Saints. Leading by 10 in the fourth quarter, the Bucs blew the game and a chance to take control of the final wild-card spot. Aaron Brooks threw two touchdowns during the final 3:33, including the go-ahead 7-yarder to Donte' Stallworth with 32 seconds left.

The winner came eight plays after running back Michael Pittman lost his fifth fumble of the season at the Tampa Bay 41 with 3:19 left. With good field position and needing only a couple of first downs to run out the clock, Pittman lost the football after a hit by defensive end Will Smith. The play was ruled a fumble that was recovered by Saints cornerback Fakhir Brown. The Bucs used an instant replay challenge, but referee Jeff Triplette said none of the angles provided conclusive evidence needed to overturn the ruling on the field.

"It was stunning to me. I thought he was down," Jon Gruden said. "I thought he was clearly down. In the press box, we were all looking at the same video the officials were looking at. We all thought he was down. We'll wake up (today) and realize he wasn't down and that it was a turnover and they capitalized."

Pittman, who lost critical fumbles in losses at St. Louis and Carolina, had plenty of accomplices during Sunday's defeat, which guaranteed the Bucs (5-9) consecutive losing seasons for the first time since they wore orange in 1995-96. With the Bucs leading by two scores and 4:03 left, Josh Bidwell sent a 30-yard punt to the Saints' Michael Lewis, who returned it 53 yards to the Tampa Bay 4. Two plays later, Brooks lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Joe Horn over the head of safety Dwight Smith to make it 17-14. Lewis' return was the second special teams gaffe of the game by the Bucs. Former Tampa Bay running back Aaron Stecker muffed the opening kickoff but still raced 98 yards for a touchdown.

Even after Pittman's fumble, the Bucs had a chance to slam the door on the Saints. But Brooks, who was sacked seven times, scrambled for 13 yards on fourth and 12 from the Tampa Bay 43. Two plays later, he hit tight end Boo Williams for 22 yards, setting up his pass to Stallworth.

What really made Sunday's defeat devastating was everything set up perfectly for the Bucs. Carolina was beaten by the Falcons in overtime Saturday night, and the Cowboys, Lions and Rams lost Sunday. Tampa Bay was about three minutes from a three-way tie with the Panthers and Rams for the final wild-card berth. "Obviously, we knew before we played the situation we were in," Derrick Brooks said. "We really kind of control our own destiny. We let all that slip through our fingers. Now we're probably not eliminated but really need just short of a miracle, if a miracle. "I just look around this locker room, and guys know our window of opportunity is not open real wide. Every time we seem to approach that window, we do something to ourselves to shut it. I guess that's what's disappointing at this point."

Until the fourth quarter, the Bucs defense dominated the Saints. Brooks had completed 9 of 13 passes for 104 yards and had been sacked six times, including 3 1/2 by Simeon Rice. But on the final two drives, Brooks went 3-of-5 for 31 yards and two touchdowns. "It hurts, man. All I can say is we had them in a situation where we could win the game," Greg Spires said. "Somehow, we find a way to shoot ourselves in the foot. You can always put it on the defense. If they don't score, they don't win. So we've got to put that on our shoulders. We gave up a touchdown at the end of the game that won it for them."

Stecker, who played four seasons with the Bucs, gave the Saints a 7-0 lead when he muffed the opening kickoff, slipped at the 12, retrieved the ball that bounced through his legs at the 2 and didn't stop running until he reached the end zone. The Bucs tied the score on their opening drive when Joey Galloway caught a 3-yard touchdown from Brian Griese. The 60-yard march was aided by three Saints penalties.

Galloway made it 14-7 when he returned a third-quarter punt 59 yards for a touchdown. It could have been more, but Griese was intercepted in the end zone by Mike McKenzie as he was hit trying to throw the ball away. Jay Taylor's 37-yard field goal made it 17-7 with 11:17 left in the game. If ever a game appeared in the bag, this what it. The Saints were 0-8 this season when trailing entering the fourth quarter. "We felt like we were in a situation where we could run out the clock, so we weren't doing a whole lot on offense, just ball control," Griese said. "And it came back to bite us."

Pittman, who leads the NFL in fumbles, has let the game slip away before. Remember the 93-yard fumble return by Rams safety Adam Archuleta? Remember how Pittman coughed up a fumble deep in Carolina territory? "This year, I guess the fumblitis hit me," Pittman said of his six fumbles in 11 games. "I don't fumble, but this year I have."

Pittman said he didn't believe he fumbled Sunday. Even Triplette agreed that was possible but said he had no replay angles to overturn the call on the field. "We could not see him down with the ball in his possession, so we don't have anything we can overturn without the evidence," Triplette said.

This much is conclusive. The Bucs are alone in last in the NFC South. Want to know why? Check the replays. "It doesn't get any worse than that," Gruden said. "I've never seen that before. I'm looking for an explanation for our players and our fans. All I can say is that it is my responsibility. I failed."

Rick Stroud The St.Petersburg Times 20 December 2004