Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Opportunity Lost

On a weekend in which everything else went right, the Bucs know they missed a chance to put the playoffs in their sights…Where do they go from here?

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RB Michael Pittman, whose outstanding 131-yard rushing day was obscured by a late fumble, says the Bucs will work as hard as ever this week

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When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wake up on Monday morning, they won't be eliminated from the NFC playoff race, as remarkable as that may seem considering the team's 5-9 record.

Mathematically, they will still have a shot, but it will require a series of outcomes too complicated to give serious thought. What the Bucs will know on Monday morning is that, for the second straight week, they missed an opportunity to take control of the chase for the final conference playoff spot.

"We needed to win this game to bring us up to the sixth spot and to control our own destiny," said linebacker and team leader Derrick Brooks. "I don't know if this completely removes us from playoff contention, but it would take nothing short of a miracle to get us there."

Had the Bucs held onto the 10-point lead they took into the game's final four minutes, they would have been 6-8, in a three-way tie with Carolina and St. Louis for the second Wild Card berth. The Bucs play the Panthers next weekend, so they would have controlled their fate in that regard. And the Rams, who lost 31-7 at Arizona on Sunday, face a tough final two weeks against Philadelphia and the New York Jets.

A win on Sunday wouldn't have put the Bucs in the playoffs, but it certainly would have made the path clear. The team is left to wonder, with so many last-minute losses this season, if they passed up on a playoff spot they deserved in what is obviously a very down year for the NFC.

Brooks has a good answer to that question.

"Look at our record," he said. "We're firm believers that you get what you deserve. So, we went from controlling our own destiny, with everyone losing and us winning, to needing anything short of a miracle.

"The window was open and every time we approached it, we found some way to close it ourselves. For the first time in a long time, I am speechless and have no answers. We just keep finding ways to give away games."

The Bucs are assured of their second consecutive losing season in the wake of the team's victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. Tampa Bay hasn't hit the skids, like the Super Bowl XXXIII combatants Atlanta and Denver going 5-11 and 6-10 respectively the following year. Rather, the team has lost one close game after another for two seasons, twice going into December looking to pull out of a rough campaign and twice coming up short. That doesn't make the failure to return to the playoffs any easier; in fact, it might even be more frustrating.

"We are better than our record shows," said running back Michael Pittman, who wanted to shoulder the blame for the loss after his fourth-quarter fumble. "We are not a bad football team, you never see us getting blown out. We played hard today and just have to keep playing that way. We still have two games left, I don't know about the playoffs, but I am just going to keep wishing that we get better and do what we can."

So the Bucs wake up Monday morning with little shot at playing beyond January 2. How will that affect their preparations for next Sunday's game against Carolina? It might sound like a cliché, but the team will work as hard in Week 16 as they did in Week One. As much as the 2004 season has been filled with frustrating moments, Head Coach Jon Gruden has never questioned his team's work ethic or will to win.

Pittman, whose fumble came at the end of a very impressive 131-yard rushing day, one that helped put the Bucs in position to win, knows what to do come Monday.

"We wake up in the morning," he said. "We have a 1:00 p.m. meeting and we look at this film and put it behind us. We get ready for Carolina, that's how we put it behind us."

The best the Bucs can do is finish 7-9, which would equal their record from last year. However, they have an opportunity to separate 2004 from 2003, when they lost their last two games after climbing to 7-7 and the edges of the playoff race.

"Right now, we have to find a way to play good football and end this season with a positive taste in our mouth," said Brooks. "The way we ended last season was a very bitter taste, and I don't want to feel that way."

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