Done And Out
It can happen in an instant, in the time it takes a quarterback who spent a season not making mistakes to make a big one, in the time it takes a now former fairy-tale kick returner to cough one up. And it's over.

It can happen in the time it takes the other quarterback to nickel-and-dime you to death, or the other defense to punish you, or for the losing coach to go away from what was working and into the jaws of what wasn't. And it's over.

That's how it happened for the Bucs on Sunday. When a football season ends, it just ends, forget the feel good and the great stories that went before it. "The music stops," Jon Gruden said.

Now he can rest his starters all he wants. There is no more season, not after the New York Giants dispatched the Bucs 24-14 on a playoff Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. The last time a Bucs coach lost two first-round postseason games in any kind of row, he was fired.

It was cut and dried Sunday, doing little to exorcise the idea that this was simply a 9-8 team. The Bucs were outplayed, outquarterbacked and outcoached. "In the playoffs, you have to be special," Chris Hovan said.

There was pride in the journey among the men who made it back from 4-12, some of whom were given no chance. "We had four or five guys play who didn't have lockers when training camp started," Gruden said. "It's a great story."

Sunday wasn't. Sunday, the Bucs were what some suspected they were, and what they dared not to be. They were just another team. You have to be special. You're special or the music stops. Where were those splashy plays they made all season?

Joey Galloway was invisible when he wasn't injured. Gruden pulled him out late in the game, Galloway didn't like it, told Gruden, then left the field with a few minutes left. Shouldn't Randy Moss sue for copyright infringement?

The NFL's second-ranked defense, after a robust start, was picked apart, slowly and surely, by, yes, Eli Manning. The Bucs were fourth in the league in turnover margin, but were a distant second Sunday, giving away three, taking away none.

Jeff Garcia, the reason the Bucs were here in the first place, was on his back a lot and he wasn't very good when he was on his feet, either. His worst pass of the season, intended for Galloway, was picked off in the New York end zone, killing a drive that was well within field-goal range and could have cut the lead to at least 17-10.

"I was trying to make a play, probably forcing the issue versus the blitz," Garcia said. "I didn't give Joey a real good chance to make a play. ... Not where I needed to go with that, not where I needed to go at that point in the game."

That was the Bucs all day. Impatient. They were impressive in the first quarter, especially Earnest Graham, who knifed through the Giants several times, and eventually scored the game's first points.

But Gruden got antsy. He forced the issue badly. In the second quarter, he went away from Graham. Despite constant Giants pressure on Garcia, Gruden threw and threw 13 pass plays, one run in the quarter and got nothing.

The Giants bided their time until they got field position, then struck, never going for too much, but coming away with everything. Oh, and they were better.

If there was any doubt that the season of the glass slipper was shattered, it was silenced on the second-half kickoff. Micheal Spurlock, who three weeks ago could have been elected mayor, fumbled in front of Gruden. The Giants soon made it a two-score game. "It's huge," Gruden said. "It's the play of the day."

The Giants made a play. The Bucs didn't. Instead, it was Derrick Brooks swiping and missing at a pass that became a Giants touchdown. It was the offensive line sagging and the defensive line slumping. It was a day that never had a chance. It was New York driving 93 yards, right down Buc throats, for the fourth-quarter touchdown that sent fans to the exits.

"When you overcome what people predicted us to do, and you combine that with the number of dramatic injuries that we suffered, it's a great accomplishment, it's a tremendous accomplishment for these players," Gruden said.

"This team came a long way," Ronde Barber said. We heard that tune all season. We hummed it at times. Heck, we sang it a few times. But Sunday wasn't close to special. It never is when the music stops.

Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune 7January 2008