Bucs 24 Raiders 31 - the game report
After a long December, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking forward to the new year, but not because they'll be playing in January. And inspirational RB Cadillac Williams may be looking at another long recovery period.

Tampa Bay lost its last shot at a postseason berth on Sunday with a 31-24 loss to the visiting Oakland Raiders. To make the playoffs, the Buccaneers needed to beat the Raiders and then hope that Philadelphia could upend Dallas later in the afternoon. The Buccaneers appeared to be in position to take care of their half of the equation midway through the fourth quarter before an injury to Williams that seemed uncomfortably similar to the one he sustained in September of 2005.

The game shifted dramatically in Oakland's favor at that moment, however, and a four-game losing streak turned a promising 9-3 season into a disappointing 9-7 finish. With the new year just three days away, the Bucs now turn their attention to 2009.

The NFL's focus will remain on Tampa, however, as 12 teams will vie for Super Bowl XLIII to be played at Raymond James Stadium on February 1. A month ago, the Buccaneers were hoping to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in its home stadium.

The Bucs finished the 2008 season with a record identical to the one that earned them the NFC South title in 2007. This is the first time in franchise history that the team has won at least nine games and not qualified for the playoffs.

Few Buccaneer seasons have come to an end at such an obvious and specific moment as this one. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers were leading by three and driving into Oakland territory when Williams, enjoying his best game in more than a year, broke free for a 28-yard run. To the horror of everyone in attendance, Williams suffered what appeared to be a serious left knee injury at the end of the run.

Just rounding back into form after a grueling, 14-month rehab process from a devastating left knee injury suffered in September of 2007, Williams left the game having produced 115 combined rushing and receiving yards and two touchdowns. "Cadillac Williams – I think that scene didn't help us at all," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "That was a very emotional downer on our sideline. It's the other knee, not same knee. That's the real tragedy today."

Indeed, Williams' misfortune seemed to suck the air out of the stadium. The drive stalled moments later when a fourth-and-three pass fell incomplete, and RB Michael Bush dashed 67 yards for a touchdown on the very next snap. The Bucs' ensuing possession lasted just one play, as S Rashad Baker intercepted a deep Jeff Garcia pass at the Oakland 33. The Raiders used all but the last 1:09 of the game driving down to the Buccaneers' two to set up a short field goal and the Bucs were unable to rally on their final drive of the season.

Tampa Bay appeared to be in control in the early minutes of the fourth quarter when S Sabby Piscitelli's 84-yard interception return set up Williams' second touchdown and gave the Buccaneers a 10-point lead. However, Oakland scored the game's last 17 points and became the third team to put up more than 30 points against the Buccaneers in the season's final month. In contrast, Tampa Bay had allowed an opponent high of 27 points before December and had only given up two 30-plus totals in all of 2007. The result was Tampa Bay's first winless December since 1989.

Before Williams' injury, the Raiders had begun their comeback with a quick touchdown drive keyed by a 43-yard pass-interference call against S Will Allen on a halfback option pass. Second-year QB JaMarcus Russell capped that three-play drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to WR Johnnie Lee Higgins. While the Buccaneers mostly kept Russell from throwing downfield, he did complete 14 of 21 passes for 148 yards, two TDs, one interception and a 98.9 passer rating.

Russell didn't have to pile up the yards through the air because the Raiders' rushing attack got hot late after a slow start. Oakland's top two runners, Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden, both came up limping early but third-stringer Bush gained 177 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. As a whole, the Raiders got 192 yards on 35 carries, continuing a disturbing trend for the Buccaneers over the final month.

"I think we gave up 900 yards rushing over the last four games, and that really tells the story," said Gruden, noting how that negatively impacted the overall field position in the game. "I don't know if we ever go the ball outside the 20 in the whole game."

In fact, Tampa Bay surrendered a crushing 756 yards on the ground during their four-game losing streak. On Sunday, the Raiders running attack coupled with the work of Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler forced the Bucs to start nine of their 13 drives at their own 20 or worse. The Bucs had an average field position start of their own 25 – even with the 11-yard drive following Piscitelli's pick – while the Raiders started at their own 37 on average.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers' own rushing attack, so solid in the first half of the season behind the Earnest Graham-Warrick Dunn combination, had been much less effective down the stretch. That appeared to be changing on Sunday thanks to the hard running of Williams, who gained 78 yards on 12 carries to lead the Bucs to 125 yards and 4.8 yards per carry. Williams also had his most prolific receiving day ever with five catches for 37 yards.

"He scored a couple touchdowns, caught the ball out of backfield, showed elusiveness and swagger again," said Gruden. "For it to all end like that, it's just awful. It's probably the most sickening feeling I've ever had as a coach. Playing his best football arguably since his rookie season and to have it come down to this…I can't do anything but shed tears right now. It's heartbreaking."

The game started poorly for the Buccaneers, as Justin Miller broke a tackle near the right sideline and cut left to take the opening kickoff all the way back to Oakland's 49-yard line. The Bucs' defense forced a punt, however, with LB Cato June shutting down a swing pass to McFadden on third-and-five. Lechler's punt rolled down at the Bucs' 10.

The Bucs tried to move the chains without throwing the ball, and Williams got eight yards on his first two totes. On third-and-two, however, Williams was trapped behind the line for a loss of one by DT Gerard Warren. Bidwell barely got off his punt in front of pressure up the middle but a good bounce got the ball down to Oakland's 36.

Oakland's second drive gained just two yards and the resulting punt was fair-caught at the Bucs' 20. The Bucs' second drive started out even worse, with Williams dropping the handoff on first down and losing three yards. On third-and-10, Garcia hit TE Jerramy Stevens on a crossing route but S Gibril Wilson dragged him down a yard short of the first down.

The Bucs would have had another three-and-out on the ensuing drive after Greg White's third-down sack, but an offside penalty on Gaines Adams erased the play and converted a third-and-four. Brooks knifed through the line to drop Fargas for a loss of three on the next play, and on third-and-eight a short pass to McFadden was stopped five yards short.

The Bucs continued to struggle to find a rhythm on offense, with a false start costing them five yards back to their own eight. On third-and-seven from the 13, Garcia scrambled up and to his left and hit Stevens near the right sideline for 19 yards and the Bucs' initial first down of the game. The Bucs were facing another third down at their own 35 when the first quarter came to an end.

The ensuing third-down play failed, and the punt went badly too when Josh Bidwell's 36-yard line drive was returned almost all the way back to the original line of scrimmage by Higgins. That gave Oakland another fine drive start of Tampa Bay's 40.

An eight-yard run by Bush helped set up a third-and-one at the 31 and Bush powered over right guard for a new set of downs at the 29. Russell had an eternity to throw on the next play and eventually completed a 17-yard strike to Higgins. On third-and-two from Tampa Bay's four, Bush broke through the line and got the first down and more, falling across the goal line for the game's first score.

Garcia took a crack at Antonio Bryant deep on the next possession but it was well overthrown, setting up third-and-five. Garcia converted that one by scrambling left and making a surprising jump-throw to WR Michael Clayton that resulted in a gain of 29 to the Raiders' 46. Two plays later, Dunn broke a tackle during a run up the middle and got 12 yards to the Raiders' 30.

An illegal motion penalty on Bryant cost the Bucs five yards but he made up for it on the next snap with a 16-yard catch on the next play. Bryant ran a nice in-and-out route two plays later at the goal line but Garcia missed him, setting up another third down. This time Garcia looked for Hilliard and found him with a dart at the nine to make it first-and-goal. Williams took it in on the next play, starting up the middle and then cutting left to find a seam to the paint. Williams' third score of the season tied the game at 7-7 with 5:38 left in the half.

The Raiders got one first down on their next drive but had to punt with 2:26 left in the half. Tampa Bay tried to tack on its patented two-minute drill before halftime but failed to complete a pass and had to punt it back at the two-minute warning. The Raiders made the most of their two-minute chance, with completions of 19 yards to WR Chaz Schilens and 28 to Miller putting the ball at Tampa Bay's seven.

The Raiders used their last timeout to stop the clock with 35 seconds left in the half, facing a third-and-goal at the three. After the pause, Russell threw a quick pass to Schilens for the go-ahead score. Startlingly, that marked the first time in the entire 2008 season that Oakland's offense had scored on a two-minute drive.

The Bucs started the second half in a no-huddle offense but suffered a letdown early when a third-and-one run by FB B.J. Askew failed. Worse, another short punt was returned 19 yards by Higgins to the Raiders' 40. Pressure forced Russell into an intentional grounding penalty that set up a third-and-18 back at the 32, and a little screen to Bush didn't come close to moving the chains.

A 25-yard catch-and-run by Williams got the next drive started, but Garcia's pass on the following play was nearly intercepted by S Hiram Eugene. On third-and-10, Clayton ran a double-move on Miller and Garcia found him wide open down the left sideline for a 58-yard, game-tying touchdown.

LB Matt McCoy caused a fumble by Miller on the ensuing kickoff but Oakland recovered at its own 18. The Bucs' defense seemed to be fired up in response to those two plays, but Russell moved the chains on third-and-five with a six-yard pass to Miller. The ball slipped out of Russell's hand on his next pass attempt and the Raiders soon faced another third-and-five at their own 29. After a false start increased the level of difficulty, the Bucs timed a blitz perfectly and Adams chased Russell down for a sack of three yards.

Unfortunately, Lechler showed off his Pro Bowl leg with a 69-yard bomb of a punt and a penalty on the return put the ball at the Bucs' 13. The Bucs turned to Williams to get the drive started again, and his extra fight on a first-down, three-yard run and a third-down, six-yard catch was enough to pick up a first down. Garcia threw to Williams on the next play, too, and it was good for a gain of 16 to the Bucs' 41.

An impressive sideline catch by Hilliard gained 13 yards and converted a third-and-nine, putting the Bucs five yards into Oakland territory. Two plays later, Bryant found an open zone deep down the left sideline and Garcia delivered a 31-yard pass to get the ball down to the Oakland 12. The Bucs faced a third-and-nine at the 11 when the third quarter came to an end. After the teams switched sides, Garcia's third-down pass was incomplete and the Bucs brought on Matt Bryant to kick a go-ahead 29-yard field goal.

The Raiders grabbed the momentum right back, as Schilens' 24-yard catch over the middle quickly put the ball into Buccaneer territory. A hard-to-discern facemask penalty on Adams erased a potential interception by Buchanon but Piscitelli's pick changed the game on the very next play. Russell tried to throw a deep slant to Miller but Piscitelli cut in from the middle of the field, picked the pass cleanly and dashed up the sideline. At midfield, Piscitelli cut across to the right, followed a hard block by S Tanard Jackson on T Mario Henderson and got to the Oakland 11 before he was spun down by Russell.

Two plays later, Williams scored again, this time going wide around left end for an eight-yard touchdown. The Bucs had a 10-point lead with 11 minutes to play. The Raiders got back into scoring territory quickly thanks to a trick play and a penalty. Bush took a pitch and rolled left, only to pull up and throw deep downfield to WR Todd Watkins. Allen ran into Watkins just before the ball arrived to draw a 43-yard pass interference penalty, and Russell hit Higgins with a 12-yard TD pass on the very next play.

Williams produced yet another big play to jumpstart the next drive, but it was also his final run of the year. Initially bottled up in the middle of the field, Williams cut back to the right and gained 29 yards before he was dragged down at the Oakland 39 by CB Chris Johnson. It was immediately obvious that Williams was hurt and he was clearly devastated as he was helped to the sideline bench. Moments later, the crowd chanted, "Caddy," as he was helped to the locker room by team trainers.

The Bucs faced a fourth-and-four at the Oakland 33 after TE Alex Smith couldn't get a foot inbounds on an improvised deep throw. Garcia tried to hit Clayton on a quick out but the ball glanced off his fingertips, giving it over on downs to Oakland. Bush scored on the next snap, breaking a tackle in the backfield by DT Jovan Haye and running untouched until CB Ronde Barber rode him into the end zone. That restored Oakland's four-point lead with seven minutes to play.

Garcia was intercepted on the next play as Bryant couldn't get around Miller deep down the left sideline and S Rashad Baker cut over to intercept the pass at the Oakland 42. The Buccaneers challenged that Baker got two feet inbounds but lost. The Raiders then pushed the ball into Buccaneers territory with runs of three, 11, four and 11 by Bush, then called a timeout with 3:55 left.

Three plays later, with Buccaneer defenders trying to rake the ball out of his hands, Bush rumbled for 19 more yards down to the nine. On third-and-goal from the two, McCoy, in the game in place of the injured Derrick Brooks, stopped Bush for no gain, forcing the Raiders to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski.

Trailing by seven, the Bucs took over at their own 20 with 1:09 to play and no timeouts. Garcia's first three passes, after scrambles away from pressure, were incomplete. On fourth-and-10, Garcia kept the Bucs' hopes alive with a 30-yard pass to Bryant. Garcia spiked the ball at the 50-yard line with 23 seconds to play. Forced to scramble on the next play, Garcia picked up five yards and ran out of bounds with 16 seconds to play. Trying to buy time on the next snap, Garcia was sacked from behind by DE Greyson Gunheim, bringing the season to an end.