Bucs ride out the suspense
Somewhere about 30,000 feet over Florida the Buccaneers' playoff dreams disappeared into thin air. The Bucs had done everything in their power Sunday to earn consecutive playoff berths. They got the first road shutout in team history and a season-high 35 points. What they couldn't do, however, was help San Diego beat Arizona, and that turned out to be the one unfinished task of the day.

As soon as Cardinals kicker Chris Jacke converted a 52-yard field goal with no time left to defeat the Chargers 16-13, Tampa Bay players knew that when their plane landed it would be their last touch down of the season. "This really is disappointing," said wide receiver Robb Thomas, who had a 50-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter in Cincinnati. "A couple of us were talking on the plane, and we felt like we had a chance to go. It feels kind of strange for the season to end like this. But at least we can leave the season feeling good about ourselves."

The Bucs, who finished 8-8, kept track of the San Diego-Arizona game by radio and two TV that received intermittent signals. They saw San Diego score on fourth and 20 to tie with 16 seconds left and seemingly send the game into overtime. But they also saw Eric Metcalf return the kickoff 46 yards to the San Diego 44 before Jacke's field goal two plays later. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said having TVs just seemed to heighten the suspense.

"It was nerve-racking when San Diego was driving there at the end," Kiffin said. "And then when they get the ball fourth and 20, everybody was watching. It makes it tough no doubt about it. I mean, we were thisclose to going to Dallas. Everybody on the plane wants to be playing kick coverage on that kickoff. You could put me in there and he wouldn't have gotten to the dang 44-yard line. It was like we played two games today."

Tony Dungy, whose team was greeted by some 70 fans at One Buc Place about 8:25 p.m., said as painful as it was to watch his playoff plans crumble, the Bucs have no one but themselves to blame: "Everybody got a little excited and was feeling good when they tied the game because we thought it was going into OT. But we put ourselves in that position; we had our chances. We lost twice to Detroit, then to Washington and New Orleans; those are sub-.500 teams."

Mike Readling, The St.Petersburg Times 1998