Packin' for Philly
It was all right there for the Bucs. A home playoff game, a division title, a first-round bye, the end to the numbing cold-weather losing streak and a rare win in Wisconsin. All that was left was for their most consistent performer, Martin Gramatica, to kick a 40-yard field goal that would win the game against Green Bay and take a Lambeau leap into his teammates arms.

But with nine seconds remaining, Gramatica's attempt was wide right and everything else suddenly went very wrong for the Bucs. Packers kicker Ryan Longwell made a decisive 22-yard field goal with 8:29 remaining in overtime, as the Packers dealt the Bucs a 17- 14 loss in their season finale. So instead of being home for the holidays, Tampa Bay (10-6) will spend New Year's Eve in Philadelphia, playing a wild-card game against the Eagles (11-5) at 4:15 p.m. Sunday.

"It's a tough feeling. But it's not just one kick," coach Tony Dungy said. "It's a combination of things. The Chicago game, the Detroit game at home. The Jets game. That's just the way it goes. You really can't look back. We're playing on the road and we've got to go make it happen. Hey, we're going to need kicks. He'll make a lot more kicks before he's done. It just didn't go through. It's a tough loss, obviously. But hey, he's made a ton of kicks for us and we expect him to make a lot more."

He might have to. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, five wild-card teams have made it to the Super Bowl. Of those, only the Patriots in '85 reached the Super Bowl after playing all their playoff games on the road. Except for Gramatica's miss, everything else fell perfectly for the Bucs Sunday.

The Rams beat the Saints, meaning with a win, the Bucs were assured at least a home wild-card playoff game against the Eagles. Then Minnesota lost at Indianapolis 31-10, which would have given the Bucs a second straight NFC Central title, a home game and a first- round bye in the playoffs. But despite losing their last three games, the Vikings won the division and will have a week off. Meanwhile, the Bucs go back on the road to Veterans Stadium, in a cold-weather site with their 0-19 streak in games under 40 degrees.

Tampa Bay will have at least two playoff games on the road and can only return home against the Rams if both teams reach the NFC Championship Game. "We made the road a lot tougher on ourselves," safety John Lynch said. "It kind of speaks to this season: By the four-game losing streak, we made it tougher on ourselves but we were able to come back from that. So I believe and I think the guys in this room believe although we made it tougher, our expectations are very much in reach. We just made it a little harder. We're going to have to go on the road and get some wins, but we feel we can do that."

Sunday's wild-card game features a duel between two Class of '99 quarterbacks - Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and Tampa Bay's Shaun King. Dungy said he still liked his team's chances. "I haven't seen them this year at all," he said. "We played them last year but they're a different team now with McNabb playing. "We're happy to be working. There's a lot of teams that won't be working next week. We've gone into some tough places. Philadelphia is a tough place. But I'll think we'll be ready and should be recovered from this by then."

In battling back from a two-touchdown deficit, Tampa Bay forced four turnovers in the second half. An interception by linebacker Jamie Duncan of a Brett Favre pass with 1:45 to play set up Gramatica's potential winner. "It just didn't go through," Gramatica said. "It hurts because I let the guys down."

The Bucs' hopes in the post-season might have been further hindered by linebacker Derrick Brooks' shoulder sprain in the second quarter. He did not return. King struggled in the first half but finished 21-for-42 passing for 237 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked five times. Trailing 14- 3 to start the fourth quarter, King suddenly heated up. He went 6-for-6 for 74 yards, including his 19-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Johnson.

With the score 14-9, the Bucs went for the two-point conversion and made it with a little trickery. King handed the ball to Dunn, who handed to Mike Alstott reversing to his right, and Alstott pitched to King for the conversion. Then came the gift for which the Bucs had been waiting. Favre, who had been error-free, was intercepted by Lynch, who returned the ball to the Green Bay 35.

Dungy faced a decision when Dunn's 9-yard reception came on third down. He could have attempted to convert on fourth and 1, but opted for the tying field goal. Gramatica's 43-yard kick split the uprights and it was a new game. King and the offense were horrible in the first half. A week after having arguably his best game as a pro, King went 6-for-19 for 60 yards in the first half Sunday.

More puzzling was the Bucs' play selection. On a frigid day that was unkind to anything in the air, Tampa Bay ran 11 times. As is typical in Green Bay, the Bucs were behind 14-0 early in the third quarter on touchdown runs by Ahman Green. Green Bay benefited from a short field, needing only to go 48 yards for its first touchdown. The Packers got 39 yards of Bucs penalties to go 77 yards with their first possession of the second half. The big one was a 24-yard penalty on cornerback Brian Kelly for interfering with rookie Charles Lee.

As they filed out of Lambeau where they have not won in 10 tries, the Bucs tried to remain upbeat about the post-season. "It's not tough at all," Duncan said. "We're disappointed we lost a chance to win the division and get a first-round bye. But there are 19 other teams sitting at home wishing they were us. It's a fresh season for everybody and we have to approach it as such."

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000