Chargers Hand Bucs First Home Loss
When the clock ran down on the final NFL game of the day Sunday the Bucs were still alive in the NFC playoff race. They were barely alive but they were alive nonetheless. After watching them drop a 41-24 decision to the San Diego Chargers at Raymond James Stadium, however, you have to wonder just what kind of a playoff team the Bucs would be.

With their defense stuck in a seemingly irreversible state of retreat and their offense diminished to a two-man show, it seems quite possible that another one-and-done tournament run is what lies ahead. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, with only one wild card berth left undecided, the Bucs will need to beat the Raiders at home next week and then have Dallas lose or tie at Philadelphia just to get in.

It's no wonder then that at a time when everything they are doing is geared toward getting them into the playoffs, some Bucs could barely find it within themselves to mention the word playoff. "I have to harness my inner Jim Mora here,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. "I mean, to heck with the playoffs. Right now we just have to find a way to win a game, period.''

For 12 weeks the Bucs found all kinds of ways to win games. The magic has suddenly disappeared, though, as their losing streak now stands at three, including their first loss this year at home. "There are a lot of guys in this locker room right now who are in disbelief over this situation,'' said receiver Antonio Bryant, who is one half of the two-man Bucs attack.

The other half is quarterback Jeff Garcia. One week after missing a game with a sore right calf he ran for a team-best 45 yards and a touchdown and threw for 232 yards and a touchdown, that to Bryant. As it has been since the losing streak started, though, it was the defense that let the Bucs down, this time by allowing quarterback Philip Rivers to complete 21 of his 31 throws for 287 yards and four touchdowns.

"That wasn't our best football today,'' Jon Gruden said. "The simple fact is, we haven't played our best football [these last three weeks]. We had chances to win all three of these games; we just didn't get it done.''

The didn't get it done in the running game, the Bucs rushing for 111 yards overall but getting only 50 on 19 carries by running backs Warrick Dunn, Cadillac Williams, Clifton Smith and B.J. Askew. They didn't get it done in the passing game, Garcia completing 21 of 35 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown but throwing two interceptions while at least four passes were dropped by receiving targets.

And they didn't get it done on defense, the Bucs limiting the Chargers to just 90 yards rushing but allowing them to convert 54 percent of their third downs while also allowing several big plays. One of the biggest was a 25-yard Rivers pass to Vincent Jackson just before halftime. That set up a 57-yard Nate Kaeding field goal that did more than just extend a Chargers halftime lead to 20-10.

It also instilled in the Chargers the confidence they needed to bounce back and regain the lead after the Bucs took it from them with two straight scores in the third quarter. "We did play with a lot of confidence today,'' said Chargers coach Norv Turner. "We're a talented group and I thought all along that we would match up well with Tampa.''

He also had to think the Chargers could win if they just kept it close through three quarters. After all, San Diego is one of the best fourth-quarter teams in the league. They'd outscored their opponents 117-75 in that pivotal quarter prior to Sunday and kept the pace up against the Bucs, outscoring them 21-0 in the final 15 minutes to pull away and win.

Bucs mistakes were a big part of that. Stephen Cooper's interception of a Garcia pass killed the first Bucs drive of the final quarter and Antone Cason's interception return for a touchdown of another Garcia pass killed another. Rivers 32-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles came in between those two scores and that was more than enough to push the Bucs to the brink of playoff elimination.

The situation those failures have left them in is a dire one. A team that was 9-3 just three weeks ago is suddenly on the brink of one of the worst collapses in franchise history. At least they haven't lost the will to fight. "This is where pride and character take over,'' linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "Those are the principles that this team was built on and now we just have to go out there and show everybody that we have it.''

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 22 December 2008