Chidi Ahanotu and the Bucs put significant fourth-quarter pressure on QB Kurt Warner, but Warner still tossed the game-winning touchdown pass
A wonderful, memorable Tampa Bay Buccaneers season came to a close this afternoon in St. Louis. The Buccaneers managed to turn their game with the high-powered Rams into their own style of slugfest, but couldn't muster enough offense in an 11-6 loss. The Rams will now head to Super Bowl XXXIV to face the Tennessee Titans.
Coming into today's critical battle, the Rams had scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season, and had been held below three TDs just once. However, the Rams didn't find the end zone until less than five minutes remained the game when QB Kurt Warner hit WR Ricky Proehl on a 30-yard fly pattern. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, that one TD proved to be the winning score.
Rookie QB Shaun King displayed his uncommon poise in the final minutes, driving the Bucs within scoring distance, but came up short when his fourth-down 'Hail Mary' pass went out of the back of the end zone. St. Louis ran out the final 34 seconds and the Bucs held their heads high as they left the field.
The Bucs showed they came ready to play when DE Steve White intercepted St. Louis QB Kurt Warner on the first play from scrimmage. White's first career pick, which he batted into the air at the line of scrimmage before grabbing the rebound, set up Martin Gramatica's 25-yard field goal to open the scoring. The Rams answered later in the first period with a 24-yard field goal by K Jeff Wilkins after a methodical, 16-play drive.
As the second quarter began, the Buccaneers made one of their few big mistakes of the day. C Tony Mayberry's shotgun snap to QB Shaun King sailed over King's head and bounced towards the Buccaneer end zone. King was able to bat the ball out of the back of the end zone, but the resulting safety put St. Louis up 5-3. The Buccaneer defense clamped down from there, but the Rams still took that two-point lead into the halftime locker room.
Tampa Bay began the third period in much finer fashion, driving for the score that would put them ahead for most of the half. On third-and-eight from the Rams' 43, King threw a spectacular seam pass to a streaking Jacquez Green, who got free for a 32-yard gain. Though the Bucs could not punch it into the end zone, Gramatica came through with a 23-yarder and the Bucs were up by a point.
That set up the exhilarating and eventually disappointing fourth quarter. A detailed rundown of the final period action follows.
The fourth quarter opened with a Kurt Warner incompletion, as St. Louis quickly found itself in a third-and-12 hole at their own 24. However, Warner converted the long third down with a 13-yard pass to WR Ricky Proehl. CB Donnie Abraham sniffed out a screen pass on the next first down, dropping RB Marshall Faulk for a two-yard loss. After a nine-yard pass to WR Isaac Bruce and a false start penalty, Warner came through once again on third down, the Buccaneer defense picked Warner off for the third time. Nickel back Brian Kelly snagged a pass intended for WR Torry Holt and returned it 15 yards to the Rams' 42.
Tampa Bay was unable to turn the takeaway into points, however, thanks in large part to an ill-timed penalty. On fourth-and-two from the 35, QB Shaun King found WR Bert Emanuel on a crossing route that Emanuel took out of bounds around the 15-yard line. However, the play clock had expired before the snap, resulting in a five-yard delay penalty and a punt. Mark Royals lofted a high kick that Az-Zahir Hakim fair caught at the eight-yard line.
Faulk got the Rams drive off to a good start with a five-yard run on a toss-sweep around right end, but gained just two yards on second down. CB Donnie Abraham then made a leaping block to knock down a third-down pass intended for Hakim. On the resulting punt, WR Karl Williams turned in his third outstanding return, running it back to the Rams' 49-yard line.
The Rams defense turned their play up a notch, too, however. DE Kevin Carter raced around right end on first down to sack King for a six-yard loss. Dunn got five of those back on a nifty run up the middle. Then disaster struck. King overthrew Dunn on a short third-down pass and CB Dre' Bly intercepted, giving St. Louis excellent field position at the Bucs' 48.
Faulk, who had been largely contained through the first three quarters, picked up almost five yards on a first-down run and St. Louis got to third-and-one with an encroachment penalty on the Bucs. Warner then tried a bomb on the left sideline for Holt, but threw it well out of bounds, before Faulk picked up the first down with a three-yard run.
St. Louis continued to drive patiently into scoring territory. WR Isaac Bruce picked up six yards on a quick slant as the clock ticked below six minutes. Faulk was stopped for no gain but the clock continued to run down below five minutes. On third down, after a St. Louis timeout, Warner finally put the Rams into the end zone with a beautiful 30-yard touch pass to WR Ricky Proehl. The two-point conversion failed and the Rams had an 11-6 lead.
The Buccaneer offense came back with a valiant effort. Though King's first-down pass was incomplete, FB Mike Alstott busted up the middle for nine yards and again for eight yards to the Bucs' 40. King followed with an eight-yard pass to TE Dave Moore and a four-yarder to Dunn for a first down just over midfield.
King's next pass was pulled down by a leaping Green at the 38 for a nine-yard gain. King tried a pump-and-go to the outside receiver on the next play but was sacked for a six-yard loss. On third-and-seven, King stood calmly in the pocket and found a crossing Williams for a 21-yard gain and a first down at the Rams' 23.
Unfortunately, King was sacked by blitzing LB Mike Jones for a loss of 12 yards on first down. As the clock ticked down under a minute, King completed a 12-yard pass to a diving Emanuel then called a timeout. However, after the timeout, the play was overturned and called an incompletion, despite a replay that seemed to show a valid catch.
That left the Bucs in a third-and-23 hole, with 47 seconds remaining. King threw incomplete under intense pressure on third down then overthrew on a 'Hail Mary' pass. St. Louis ran off the final 34 seconds to earn the NFC berth in the Super Bowl.