Turned Away
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 22 October 2007

Everybody has one of these games in them. There's just one problem with that. When you're in the situation the Bucs are in, you can't afford to have one of these games.

For six weeks, they did what they were supposed to do. They beat the teams most thought they could beat, beating some handily. Then came Sunday. The schedule threw them to the Lions. The Lions bit hard this time out. If only the Bucs hadn't bitten themselves harder.

'It's different when a team comes in and physically works you,' cornerback Ronde Barber said in the wake of the Bucs' 23-16 loss to the Lions at Ford Field. 'This one didn't feel that way. This is one that got away. This is one we gave away.'

It will sting for a while, perhaps for a couple of weeks. The trick is to make sure it doesn't sting any longer - like into January. Some of those who have been through a few of these can't say for sure that it won't.

Veteran receiver Ike Hilliard talked about the big picture late Sunday. He talked about the NFC playoff race and how wide open it is. 'There's not a team in the NFC right now that has established itself as the team to beat,' he said. 'We had an opportunity to put our stamp on that situation today. We had to win to do it, but we lost.'

They lost more than the game. By dropping to 4-3, they also lost the share of first place they had with Carolina in the NFC South. That's what Hilliard was getting at. Barber couldn't ignore the potential consequences either. 'Yeah, we'll look back on this one,' Barber said. 'Hopefully, it won't matter. But if it does ... we had a good chance today to give ourselves some distance in our division, but we let it go.'

Most will blame the offense and, certainly, it had a hand in it. Surprisingly, it was Jeff Garcia whose hands factored the most. On a day when he succeeded as much as any Bucs quarterback has, the former Lions starter also struggled as much as any quarterback has.

His run of pass attempts without throwing an interception remains intact. He has thrown a team-record 189 (270 including last season with the Eagles), but that record and the single-game record he set by completing 18 consecutive passes in one game became footnotes because he struggled to handle snaps and handoffs.

One of each was fumbled by Garcia on Sunday. Both wound up in the hands of the Lions. On each occasion, the Lions scored a touchdown, the last coming in the fourth quarter after the Bucs had driven 78 yards to the Lions' 1 with the game's outcome still uncertain. 'It just didn't happen the way it's supposed to,' Garcia said. 'I can't really explain it. It's something I have to take care of. We were our own worst enemy today at times.'

It wasn't just the offense. Place-kicker Matt Bryant missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt, and punter Josh Bidwell had a punt blocked. The Lions got points off both. Even still, there was a chance at the end to get the ball back and win the game. That's when the defense went flat.

Through more than three quarters, it had limited the league's ninth-best scoring offense to 177 yards and forced it to settle for field goals on three of its four scoring drives. When they needed a stop the most, though, the Bucs couldn't get it.

Instead, they allowed the Lions to drive 93 yards for a clinching touchdown that came on an end-around run by rookie Calvin Johnson, the former Georgia Tech wide receiver whom the Bucs considered trading up for on draft day in April. 'That shouldn't happen to us,' said Greg Spires.

'You saw Calvin Johnson, the brilliance he brings to the field,' Jon Gruden added. 'He's a rare guy. But we have them backed up and they have 93 yards to go. We have an opportunity to get them off the field. It was disappointing. We had breakdowns everywhere today.'

Not everywhere. After rushing for a combined 47 yards the previous two weeks, Bucs backs ran for 124 yards against the Lions. Earnest Graham, the new feature back, got most of those yards. He gained 92 on 19 carries and proved he also can be a factor in the passing game by catching a team-high (and franchise record-tying) 13 passes for 99 yards.

And for the most part, Garcia was exceptional. Despite facing a heavier rush than he has most of the season, he managed to complete 19 of his first 20 passes and 37 of 45 for 316 yards and two touchdowns overall. 'I don't know how much better you can play than that,' Gruden said.

'I grabbed him after the game and told him, 'Your team is going to go as far as you take them,'' said Joe Barry, the former Bucs linebackers coach who is now the Lions' defensive coordinator. 'I told him, 'You're a stud.' I respect the heck out of that guy.'

Just as he did with the Eagles last year, Garcia has resurrected the Bucs. Some are even talking about him as an MVP candidate. They were until Sunday, anyway. Who knows now if that talk continues? The good news is Garcia has time to regain the ground he lost in losing to the Lions. So do the Bucs. Right now, though, the loss stings. 'When you play that way and you lose,' Graham said, 'it just plain hurts.'