Freeze it here and the Bucs' comeback is complete...unfortunately, the ball slid when WR Edell Shepherd hit the end zone turf
It was a thrilling, revelatory season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but in the end turnovers trumped the turnaround.
The Buccaneers improved from 5-11 in 2004 to 11-5 in 2005, and the best single-season rebound in franchise history was rewarded with Saturday's Wild Card playoff game against Washington in Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. Unfortunately, the season ended there as two critical giveaways by the offense led to an early deficit the team couldn't overcome. Despite allowing just 120 yards of offense to the Redskins' red-hot attack, the Buccaneers lost 17-10.
When the sting of the season-ending loss eventually fades, perhaps the Bucs will take solace in how well they responded when things looked hopeless. In fact, if not for a fourth-and-one stand by the Washington defense at their own 19 with eight minutes left in the game and a touchdown pass that was barely dropped, the Bucs might have completed a stirring comeback.
The latter play was WR Edell Shepherd's reprise of his game-winning touchdown catch against Washington in November. This time, Shepherd hauled in a 40-yard strike from QB Chris Simms as he hit the end zone, took two steps and hit the ground with one knee as he was tackled from behind. However, the ball momentarily slipped from Shepherd's grasp as his torso hit the ground, and that was enough for an incompletion. The Bucs challenged but Referee Mike Carey explained that a receiver must maintain possession of the ball when he hits the ground if he is falling in the act of catching the pass.
"It's just a shame," said Simms. "We were so close. I thought it was going to be just like the last game there at the end. Our defensive played magnificently all day long. We just didn't put enough points on the board."
On the previous drive, which reached Washington's 19, the Redskins sniffed out a daring play-action pass on that play and QB Chris Simms was forced into a no-hope lob in FB Jameel Cook's direction. Tampa Bay also got the ball back near midfield with 1:05 left in the game after a shanked punt, but Simms' first pass was tipped at the line and intercepted by LB Marcus Washington.
Washington was a central figure in the game's depressing early minutes, which featured two turnovers and a quick, 14-0 lead for the visiting team. A crowd of 65,514 was ready to shout itself hoarse as the 12th man, and red and white Battle Flags made Raymond James a rolling sea of white at the opening kickoff. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm was dampened early by those two early turnovers, both of which came with a hint of controversy.
LB LaVar Arrington intercepted Simms' first pass of the game, which was tipped at the line by DE Demetric Evans. Arrington rambled to Tampa Bay's six and may have fumbled it back at the end of the play, but the Bucs attempt to challenge the play was thwarted by the fact that Arrington was whistled down at the end of the play. RB Clinton Portis scored on a six-yard run on the next play.
Washington recovered a Cadillac Williams fumble at the Redskins' 42, got off the grass and started running towards the Bucs end zone, before he too fumbled. S Sean Taylor picked up the ball on the run and took it 51 yards untouched for the two-touchdown lead. The Bucs did challenge that play, claiming Washington was touched down while he was lying on the ground, but the replay official found no evidence of that.
Had the ball bounced a bit differently, rookie guard Dan Buenning could have been a hero. He forced the fumbles by both Arrington and Washington. Buenning also delivered the key block on Simms' two-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
The Bucs had little luck on loose balls, failing to recover two other fumbles they forced by the Washington offense. On another near-miss, DE Simeon Rice knocked the ball out of QB Mark Brunell's hand in the first quarter and the Bucs recovered in Washington's end zone, but the play was ruled an incompletion and the Bucs apparently acquiesced by not challenging the play.
Tampa Bay's defense did everything but recover those loose balls, though. They allowed the fewest yards in franchise postseason history, beating the 157 allowed to Washington in a 14-13 Divisional Round win on January 15, 2000. Counting regular-season games, it was the fourth-lowest total allowed by a Buccaneer defense in a single game.
Amazingly, one of the three games above Saturday's contest on that list was also a loss, and it was a very similar contest to the latest one. On September 12, 1999, the Bucs allowed only 107 yards of offense to the New York Giants but lost 17-13 thanks to one defensive score and several other critical turnovers. That game, though, was the season opener and the Bucs still advanced to within five minutes of the Super Bowl later that year. Saturday's loss brought an incredibly entertaining season to an end.
That season saw more than one critical call made around the goal line. A 17-13 win over Detroit in Week Four was preserved when a Marcus Pollard touchdown in the same end zone as Shepherd's play on Saturday (and the one in November) was overturned on a challenge. A 30-27 overtime win over Atlanta in Week 16 was helped when a Roddy White catch in the end zone was called incomplete for the same reason that Shepherd's was on Saturday. And that November win over Washington was completed by a two-point conversion run by Mike Alstott that withstood a replay challenge.
The Bucs had less luck with their challenges on Saturday, losing their last timeout on a review they had to call for after Shepherd's attempt.
"I thought it was certainly close enough to challenge, given the magnitude of the play and the situation of the game," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It is what it is. I agree with the final verdict, whether it was for us or against us. I thought it was certainly a great throw and I thought he had both hands on the ball in the end zone.
"[They said] you have to have possession of the ball. The bottom line is, it was all for naught. I thought we had a chance on the following play, too, but we didn't convert it. We just didn't get it done tonight."
Rice had a strong game pressuring Brunell, who was held to just seven completions for 41 yards on the day. Rice had six tackles, a sack and a pass defensed, and DE Ellis Wyms added a second sack. LB Shelton Quarles led the team with 11 tackles, and LB Derrick Brooks and CB Ronde Barber had eight apiece. LB Brian Kelly added a tackle and a pass defensed to his interception, which set up the drive that ended in the pass to Shepherd. Actually, that drive ended one play later, a fourth-down bomb again in Shepherd's direction that overshot the open receiver by about five yards.
Portis had the touchdown but just 53 yards on 16 carries. Dangerous WR Santana Moss had just two catches for 18 yards…and he was the Redskins' leading receiver. Washington had just 25 net passing yards on the game, another franchise record for the Bucs' defense.
Washington's defense was strong, too, mostly eliminating the big play and allowing just 243 yards overall. RB Cadillac Williams was held to 49 yards on 18 carries and the Bucs gained just 75 yards and 3.0 yards per carry on the ground. Simms picked up the slack with a sharp outing, completing 25 of 38 passes for 198 yards and frequently escaping pressure to make critical plays downfield. He also scored the Bucs' only touchdown on a two-yard bootleg run. Obviously, Washington's offense was more opportunistic with the three turnovers and one score.
Taylor will certainly be remembered for his game. His touchdown was the biggest play in Washington's victory, but he also provided the Bucs with a valuable piece of momentum in the second half. Taylor was ejected after spitting in Pittman's face, and the attached 15-yard penalty took the Bucs' punting team off the field. Unfortunately, they were forced to punt a few plays later, and a late hit by FB Jameel Cook put Washington at midfield.
Tampa Bay's defense held, setting up a long drive by the offense that reached Washington's 19-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. However, after a third-and-one dive by Alstott failed, the Bucs tried a little deception on fourth-and-short, calling a play-action pass to Cook that was perfectly defended and doomed from the snap.
The Bucs' defense held again, giving the ball back to the offense at their own 35 with six minutes to play. That drive, too, failed, but Kelly's interception gave the Bucs another chance with 3:43 to play.
Down 17-3 at halftime, the Bucs refused to go quietly. On their first possession of the second half, they drove 51 yards on seven plays for their first touchdown cutting the Washington lead to 17-10. Simms hit RB Michael Pittman on a 22-yard pass over the middle to convert a third-down near midfield, then completed the drive himself with a two-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal. On the play, Simms faked to Mike Alstott, who had run on first and second down, and sprinted left. Buenning pulled out wide and made the perfect block, allowing Simms to dive over the pylon as two defenders converged. That cut the Washington lead to 17-10 with 9:34 left in the third quarter.
In the first quarter, the Redskins' offense was the first to threaten the scoreboard, but consecutive plays by S Dexter Jackson killed a drive that had reached the Buccaneers' 34. On first down, Portis swept right but pulled up and threw downfield to Moss on a halfback option. It was a good call that sucked in most of the defense, but Jackson reacted in time to get back to the goal line and knock the pass away. On the very next snap, Jackson made a play 35 yards upfield, stopping Portis cold on a one-yard run around right tackle. After a blitz forced Brunell to throw it away on third down, the Redskins punted into the end zone.
Unfortunately, the defensive stand was rendered irrelevant one play later by Arrington's interception, which was followed shortly by Taylor's touchdown.
The Bucs were able to respond with their first score early in the second period. A methodical 11-play drive reached the Washington 19 on a 14-yard catch by WR Joey Galloway, but it backed up to the 30 on DE Phillip Daniels' 13-yard sack. The Bucs had to settle for Matt Bryant's 43-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 14-3 with 10 minutes left in the half.
Galloway led the team and finished a magnificent season with seven receptions for 69 yards. WR Ike Hilliard had four receptions for 38 yards, converting two third downs in the process. In all, the Bucs converted on five of 14 third-down tries.
The Redskins wasted no time in restoring their two-touchdown lead after Bryant's kick, driving 40 yards on 10 plays to set up John Hall's 47-yard field goal, which Hall slipped just inside the right upright with 5:34 left in the first half. The Bucs drove to midfield on the ensuing possession but had to punt when Simms was sacked for the third time in the half.
The Redskins' second-quarter field goal drive and their opening possession were the only two that gained more than nine net yards. Each of Washington's last four possessions ended in three plays or less.
The Redskins, however, will move on. As the sixth seed, they will automatically go to the home of the first seed next weekend, which is why they're headed to Seattle. The winner of Sunday's Carolina-New York Giants game will go to Chicago next weekend. The Buccaneers will begin preparing for 2006.
Game Notes: Saturday's loss snapped a streak of four straight home playoff victories, dating back to a Wild Card win over Detroit following the 1997 season. Overall, Tampa Bay is 4-2 in the postseason at home, the lone loss before this season occurring in the 1979 NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams. … FB Mike Alstott and LBs Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles each appeared in their 10th playoff games for the Buccaneers, tied for the most in franchise history. Those three had been tied at nine with John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Karl Williams. … Eighteen Buccaneers appeared in their first NFL playoff game on Saturday, including, of course, rookies Carnell Williams, Donte Nicholson, Barrett Ruud and Alex Smith. LB Ryan Nece was among those 18 even though his rookie season was 2002; Nece was on injured reserve by the time that team hit the postseason. … The Bucs opened the game in a heavy, three-tight end set. That meant, in addition to Anthony Becht, starts went to Dave Moore and Alex Smith, while FB Mike Alstott and WR Ike Hilliard were not on the field for the first play. … During halftime of the game, the NFL announced its starters for the Pro Bowl. Both CB Ronde Barber and LB Derrick Brooks will start for the NFC squad. … DE Simeon Rice's sack of QB Mark Brunell in the fourth quarter was the seventh of his postseason career. He had four sacks during Tampa Bay's three-game run to the Super Bowl title in 2002. … Chris Simms is now part of only the second father-son duo in NFL history to each start a playoff game. His father, Phil Simms, was MVP of Super Bowl XXI. The only other pair to qualify is Jack and Jeff Kemp.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Saturday's game: RB Derek Watson, CB Blue Adams, T Chris Colmer, DT Anthony Bryant, C Scott Jackson, WR Michael Clayton, TE Will Heller and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay.
The Redskins named the following eight players inactive: CB Shawn Springs, RB Nehemiah Broughton, DB Dimitri Patterson, S Matt Bowen, DL Ryan Boschetti, WR Jimmy Farris, DL Aki Jones and designated third quarterback Jason Campbell.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury during Saturday's game. Washington lost DE Renaldo Wynn to a right forearm fracture in the first half.