Super Heartbreak
The defense carried the Bucs through the season, to the most wins in club history, to a division title and to within several minutes of Super Bowl XXXIV. But in the end, the burden was too darned heavy to lug all the way to Atlanta. Quarterback Kurt Warner, the NFL's MVP, threw a game-winning, 30- yard touchdown pass to receiver Ricky Proehl with 4:44 remaining to give the Rams a stirring 11-6 comeback victory Sunday over the Bucs in the NFC Championship Game.

The game was emblematic of Tampa Bay's season and wasted another heroic effort by the defense. Against the league's No. 1 offense, the Bucs intercepted Warner three times and nearly pulled off perhaps the most stunning upset in playoff history over the 14 1/2-point favorites. But Bucs rookie quarterback Shaun King and the offense knuckled under pressure, producing just a pair of Martin Gramatica field goals and coming up short on a valiant comeback attempt that ended when King's pass to Bert Emanuel was incomplete in the end zone with 34 seconds left.

"We've been winning by the skin of our teeth and this time we lost," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "I've been saying all week when you come into the playoffs, you've got to put some points on the board. You can bring your defense all you want, but you're playing a very dangerous game playing close games like that. Shaun King struggled again. He's a rookie. Big game. It's kind of like, don't beat him against the bush because he is a rookie. But he struggled through the playoffs, pretty much, and that kind of hurt us."

So the Rams advanced to their Super Bowl meeting Sunday with the Tennessee Titans in Atlanta, while the Bucs go back to the chalkboard and try to improve an impotent offense. Until Warner's touchdown pass, the Rams had been held to just a 24-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins. Their other score was a second-quarter safety when King batted the ball out of the back of his end zone after a shotgun snap from center Tony Mayberry sailed over his head.

King, who completed just 9 of 21 passes for 120 yards until the final drive, nearly pulled off a thrilling comeback. He drove the Bucs from their 23 to the Rams 22. King's fourth completion on the march, a 13-yarder to Emanuel, left the Bucs facing third and 10 after burning their final timeout with 47 seconds remaining. But instant replay official Jerry Markbreit used the play stoppage to signal to referee Bill Carollo that the play should be reviewed. Carollo then reversed the call on the field after determining that the tip of the ball hit the ground.

The Bucs were backed up to third and 23. King fired two incompletions and the game ended. "It was apparent that the player, that as he was catching the ball, he used the ground," Carollo said. "By rule, you can't use the ground or have assistance from the ground to make a catch."

Emanuel said there was no doubt in his mind it was a legal reception. "It's a play that I made. I was so sure about it, it wasn't even a question," he said. Had the Bucs not called timeout, the play probably wouldn't have been reviewed. "Obviously, if they call it incomplete, we're not going to call a timeout," Tony Dungy said. "So we're down to no timeouts. That's a tough deal."

Emanuel was involved in another play that wound up costing the Bucs dearly. After Brian Kelly intercepted Warner and returned it to the Rams 42 in the fourth quarter, the Bucs had a great chance to pad their lead. Dungy eschewed a 52-yard field-goal by Gramatica on fourth and 2, deciding instead to go for the first down. Emanuel appeared to have made a 20-yard catch and run of a pass to the Rams 15. Unfortunately, King failed to get the snap before the play clock ran out, and the Bucs were penalized for delay of game, forcing them to punt with 10:53 remaining.

Emanuel said the play was late being sent in from the sideline when many players figured the Bucs would attempt a field goal. "We didn't think we were going for it on fourth down," he said. "The offense was coming off the field. All of a sudden they said go back on the field. When the play came in, we knew it was a pretty good play for the yardage. It was a split second too late. We lost a couple seconds just because the offense didn't know on fourth down if we were going for it or not. I, myself, was on the sideline. I wasn't even on the field."

But King's fatal mistake came with 8:01 remaining. Clinging to a one-point lead at midfield on third and 11, he attempted a pass to Dunn that was intercepted by Rams cornerback Dre' Bly. That interception, King's second of the game, set up the Rams' winning drive. For the Bucs defense, the game basically boiled down to one mistake.

With the Rams facing third and 4 on the Tampa Bay 30, the Bucs brought free safety Damien Robinson on a blitz. Warner knew that meant man-to-man coverage by Kelly on Proehl, who adjusted his route. Despite heavy pressure, he lofted a pass that couldn't have been more perfectly placed if Warner had handed it to him. Proehl, who caught six passes for 100 yards, managed to keep his feet in bounds and fell into the end zone. "It was great coverage," John Lynch said. "We brought Damien and it was a good job on their part. Brian is stride for stride with him. (Warner) throws a perfect ball. If he throws it a little more inside, I'm over there. (Proehl) just keeps his feet in."

Despite bold pronouncements by Rams coach Dick Vermeil that his team had "no weaknesses" and claims by receiver Isaac Bruce that it couldn't be stopped, the Bucs dragged St. Louis into the kind of slowdown game they knew they had to play to win. "We watched the tape and we thought we could stop these guys," Dungy said. "We didn't think it would be a high-scoring game, we thought this would be the type of game it was and we'd win it. It's very frustrating for us, because when we have the leads in the fourth quarter, we expect to win the game."

After King's final pass to Emanuel was incomplete, several Rams players, led by safety Billy Jenkins, went to the Bucs sideline and starting taunting the Bucs. Guard Frank Middleton tussled with Jenkins. Even inactive quarterback Trent Dilfer got involved in the altercation. The bad blood spilled over in the tunnel of the Trans World Dome when safety Devin Bush, a former Florida State star, had to be restrained by police after he tangled with an unidentified Bucs player. "To jump around and go over to our sideline and deliberately taunt our players, there's no room for that. They should fine them," Emanuel said. "It was Billy Jenkins, it was Todd Lyght and it was a whole bunch of them. What kind of message does that send?"

It was a fitting ending to the Bucs' season, one that ended precisely how it began. A tough loss to the New York Giants, a wasted defensive effort, a critical completion reversed by replay and the quarterback throwing interceptions and losing a fumble. "It's a bitter pill to swallow right now and every team but one is disappointed in the way they finish," Dungy said. "We've got to have the disappointment and have that period of time. But to look back over the whole year and what we accomplished, we've got to feel good about ourselves and build toward next year."

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 1999