WR Michael Clayton made a number of impressive catches but landed on the back line of the end zone with the potential game-tying two-point conversion
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a hard time holding onto the football on Sunday at Monster Park, and they had difficulty keeping possession of a lead. What the Bucs didn't do with their 21-19 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was lose any meaningful ground in the NFC playoff race.
Having won the NFC South a week earlier and clinched a first-round home playoff game, the Buccaneers found themselves with little to gain in Week 16, though they were eager to maintain the momentum they had fashioned by winning five of their previous six outings. Instead, the Bucs dropped to 9-6 on the season but are still in essentially the same spot. Seattle's victory over Baltimore officially ended the Bucs' opportunity to move up from the fourth seed to the third, though that would have been a somewhat irrelevant gain as it were.
The Buccaneers clearly had several competing goals on Sunday. While they were legitimately chasing their 10th win of the season, they also took measures to keep their list of injured players from expanding just before the playoffs. Though the starters on offense and defense took their places as usual in the first half, many of them did not finish the game. Among those whose day was done at halftime or shortly thereafter were QB Jeff Garcia, RB Earnest Graham, WR Joey Galloway, LB Derrick Brooks, LB Barrett Ruud, LB Cato June, CB Ronde Barber, S Jermaine Phillips and S Tanard Jackson.
Those efforts were not completely successful. Second-year WR Maurice Stovall probably would have played extensively in the second half had he not suffered an arm injury early in the second quarter. Stovall was hurt trying to catch a quick slant on third down, and the entire team came out onto the field as he received assistance, an uncomfortable reminder of the team's string of season-ending injuries in the first half of the year.
The Bucs had another uncomfortable moment late in the first half when their sack leader, DE Greg White, needed help leaving the field after a hard tackle on QB Shaun Hill. However, the sideline reported that White was fine, though he did not return to the game.
The substitutions meant significant playing time for such very competent reserves as QB Luke McCown, RB Michael Pittman, RB Michael Bennett, WR Micheal Spurlock, CB Sammy Davis, S Kalvin Pearson, S Will Allen and LBs Adam Hayward, Jeremiah Trotter and Quincy Black. The team essentially fielded a second-team defense from the seven-minute mark of the third quarter on.
The reserve defense only allowed 88 yards of offense in the second half. However, as is often the case, turnovers proved to be the difference. A McCown fumble deep in the Buccaneers' end and a 62-yard interception return by Nate Clements led to two very short 49er scoring drives and an eight-point lead.
McCown and the Buccaneers rallied with a touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, pulling to within two points on TE Jerramy Stevens' second touchdown catch of the game. However, the potential game-tying two-point conversion was no good by inches when WR Michael Clayton came down with his foot on the end line after a leaping catch. On the Bucs' previous drive, Clayton had another near-miss in the end zone when he almost made a stunning, one-handed catch of a fourth-down pass.
Before the lineup switches, the Buccaneers controlled the action for much of the first half. Tampa Bay had a 223-125 edge in total yardage at the break, had possessed the ball for 18 of the 30 minutes and had produced the game's only two takeaways. However, the Bucs' offense was also only two of nine on third downs in the first half, and their first two drives of the game fizzled in the red zone and led to field goals instead of touchdowns.
As such, the Bucs held a tenuous 13-6 lead at halftime, and that proved to be an insufficient margin to hold on to victory. Tampa Bay lost despite ringing up 434 yards of offense and holding San Francisco to 213. The Bucs ran 80 plays, gained 20 first downs and averaged 5.4 yards per play but had difficulty converting scoring threats into points.
The Bucs struggled to run the ball a week after putting up a season-high 190 ground yards, gaining just 67 on 24 carries. However, the passing game displayed an encouraging big-strike capability no matter which quarterback was on the field. In all, the Bucs posted a single-game season-best 10 passing plays of 20 or more yards, with five different players having at least one. Tight end Alex Smith was heavily involved in the attack all day, catching six passes for a game-high 79 yards. Clayton took advantage of an extended opportunity to play, catching five passes for 71 yards, both season highs.
Garcia completed 12 of 20 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown before retiring for the day. McCown followed with 18 completions in 32 attempts for 185 yards, one touchdown and one pick. To be fair, his interception went through Smith's hands before bouncing to Clements.
The 49ers opened the game with good field position and the wind at their back, but Jovan Haye's sixth sack of the season killed their first drive. The Buccaneers started at their own 20 after the ensuing punt but got into 49ers territory with a hurry when Ike Hilliard turned a quick slant into a 26-yard gain on third-and-four. Smith caught three passes on the drive but he dropped a potential first down throw at the eight, leaving the Bucs in a third-and-nine at the 22. Graham's catch gained six yards but the Bucs had to settle for Bryant's 34-yard field goal to open the scoring.
Tampa Bay's defense forced another three-and-out on the next possession, twice collapsing the pocket quickly on QB Shaun Hill and forcing him into unsuccessful plays on the run. A short punt set the Bucs up at their own 39, and Clayton made a dazzling, leaping catch on the sideline to pick up 25 yards to San Francisco's 36. Smith then redeemed himself with a 32-yard catch, running wide-open down the right seam.
Set up with a first-and-goal at the five, the Bucs stumbled with a running play that looked like a miscommunication between Garcia and Graham and then a fumbled snap on second down. Garcia's third-down pass attempt to Smith was knocked down by Pro Bowl rookie LB Patrick Willis. Once again, the Bucs came away with just three points after Bryant nailed a 22-yard chip shot.
Trailing by only six thanks to their two red zone stands, the 49ers then marched into Buccaneers territory, helped by RB Frank Gore's 20-yard run around right end. Gore's next carry gained 11 yards to the Bucs' 21, bringing the first quarter to an end. San Francisco took the lead on the first play of the second quarter, as Hill threw a nice timing pass to WR Darrell Jackson on a deep square-in in the end zone.
Last week's hero, Spurlock, gave the Bucs good field position on the kickoff that followed, breaking free for a 30-yard return out to the 35. However, the 49ers' defense held without allowing a first down as S Donald Strickland made an outstanding diving breakup of a deep sideline pass intended for Hilliard.
The Bucs got the ball back quickly and moved into San Francisco territory on a 25-yard strike to Galloway. However, a chop-block penalty helped move the Bucs out of field goal territory and they eventually had to punt.
The Bucs' next scoring threat came off the game's first turnover. Phillips forced TE Vernon Davis to fumble at the end of a 15-yard catch and Ruud recovered for Tampa Bay at the 36. Pittman then converted a key third-and-10 with a 12-yard catch-and-run, as he spun off a hit by Clements and dived past the sticks. On the next play, Garcia scrambled to his right and lobbed a 24-yard touchdown pass to Stevens, who had beaten single coverage by LB Parys Haralson.
The Bucs thus regained their six-point lead with four minutes to play in the half, and a holding penalty erased a long return by Maurice Hicks on the ensuing kickoff. The Bucs actually got the ball back one more time on a Brian Kelly interception in the final minute but couldn't convert it into additional points.
The 49ers started the second half with a perfectly-executed onside kick, thus gaining possession at their own 43. Hill moved the 49ers down to the Bucs' 36 but a well-timed blitz on third-and-seven forced him into an errant throw and San Francisco had to punt. Unfortunately, McCown fumbled three plays later and the 49ers recovered at the Bucs' 14.
Two snaps later, rookie DE Gaines Adams delivered a helmet shot to Hill's ribs that drew a personal foul and moved the ball down to the six. It also sent Hill to the sideline and brought on former Panther Chris Weinke. Hill missed just one play, a handoff to Gore, and returned to throw a five-yard touchdown pass to Davis on the next snap. That gave the 49ers a one-point lead with five minutes gone in the second half.
After one more unsuccessful Bucs drive, the defensive reserves came in and made a good first showing, forcing a punt after one first down. Tampa Bay then barely avoided disaster when a lost fumble by Buchanon was erased by an illegal-man-downfield penalty on the 49ers' punt team. San Francisco's punt team did rally with a bouncing, 63-yard punt that rolled to a stop at the Bucs' seven.
The Bucs escaped the shadow of their own goal line thanks to a 13-yard scramble by McCown and a 21-yard grab by Clayton that took the ball to midfield. In between, another Buccaneer fumble was barely avoided when Smith was ruled down before he lost the ball. The 49ers challenged the play but lost. San Francisco also made a curious decision to decline a holding penalty that gave the Bucs a third-and-two, and McCown moved the sticks with a scrambling pass to Pittman.
Another Pittman catch and run took the ball to the San Francisco 32, but McCown's next pass went through Smith's hands and was intercepted by Clements and returned 62 yards to the Bucs' 23. Hill capitalized immediately, throwing a short pass to Gore that turned into a 23-yard touchdown when Gore was able to escape Black's clutches at the point of the catch.
The Bucs did nothing with their subsequent possession, thanks largely to the 49ers' fourth sack of the game, but did flip the field position on Josh Bidwell's 61-yard punt, which rolled down to the 49ers' four. After a three-and-out, Buchanon muffed the ensuing punt but Jackson recovered for Tampa Bay at the Bucs' 40.
A 20-yard strike over the middle to Hilliard on third-and-11 moved the ball into 49er territory, but the offense faced a third-and-six at the 25. McCown was forced into a scrambling throwaway and, after momentarily sending Bryant onto the field, chose to go for it on fourth down. Clayton nearly made an astonishing one-handed grab of McCown's lob into the end zone on fourth down, but lost it on contact with the ground.
San Francisco took over with five minutes left and a chance to essentially end the game. They did drain two minutes by picking up one first down, but a sack by Ryan Sims and another near sack that resulted in an intentional grounding penalty forced a punt from the 38.
The Buccaneers threatened one more time. Another 21-yard grab by Smith put the ball at the 49ers' 40 and, at the two-minute warning, the Bucs faced a third-and-two at the 32. A pass to Clayton gained nothing but a crossing route to Clayton on fourth down kept the Bucs alive. Clayton actually got down to the 14 but an illegal block at the end of the play took it back to the 24.
Two plays later, McCown scrambled to buy time and eventually hit Stevens at the two-yard line. Stevens rumbled into the end zone for a 24-yard score, setting up a two-point try to tie the game. McCown bought time again and eventually fired to Clayton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver's foot came down on the back line and the conversion was no good.
With 1:20 left in the game, the Bucs still had time to try an onside kick. Bryant's kick took one big bounce over the 49ers' heads but sailed out of bounds without being touched. With just one timeout left, the Bucs couldn't keep San Francisco from running out the clock.
At 9-6 overall, the Bucs dropped to 3-5 on the road this season, and 8-3 against NFC opponents. San Francisco won its second game in a row and improved to 5-10. The Buccaneers finish their regular-season slate with next Sunday's home finale against Carolina.
Game Notes: Tampa Bay got the game's first points on Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal on their opening possession. The Bucs are now 8-3 this season in games in which they score first. … CB Ronde Barber appeared in his 160th regular season game for the Buccaneers on Sunday. That puts him in a tie with Tony Mayberry for fifth place on the franchise's all-time games played list. S John Lynch holds down fourth place with 164 games played. … K Matt Bryant scored seven points on two field goals and an extra point That gave him 107 points on the season, the third-highest single-season point total in franchise history. Bryant is only the second player in team annals to score over 100 points in a season, joining K Martin Gramatica, who did it three times. … WR Joey Galloway's lone catch of the game, a 29-yarder in the second quarter, put him over 1,000 yards for the season. He is the first player in team history with three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and the first with three such campaigns, period. … RB Michael Pittman caught seven passes during the game, pushing his career total as a Buccaneer to 283. That pushed him past TE Jimmie Giles (279) for sixth place on the team's all-time list.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: RB Kenneth Darby, FB B.J. Askew, DE Patrick Chukwurah, LB Ryan Nece, G Dan Buenning, TE Keith Heinrich, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Askew, Chukwurah and Nece were out due to injury.
The Panthers declared the following eight players inactive: QB Trent Dilfer, WR LeRon McCoy, CB Marcus Hudson, RB Michael Robinson, CB Shawntae Spencer, T Damane Duckett, DE/DT Atiyyah Ellison and WR Bryan Gilmore. Dilfer and Spencer were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Maurice Stovall suffered a right arm injury in the second quarter and did not return.
For the 49ers, DT Aubrayo Franklin suffered a calf injury in the second quarter and did not return.