Monday, December 22, 2008

Electrocuted - Bucs Playoff Hopes on Life Support

By JC De La Torre

There are losses and then there is the excrement the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put on the football field Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. In control of their own playoff destiny (sorry, Bob Costas), all the Buccaneers had to do was win their next two games against sub .500 teams at home (where they were undefeated) and they could make reservations for the playoffs. Instead, the Buccaneers continued their downward spiral, getting blown out by the Chargers 41-24.

The formerly formidable Bucs defense continued is horrid play, getting torn apart by San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers for 287 yds and 4 touchdowns. Since word came that Monte Kiffin was leaving Tampa Bay for the University of Tennessee, the Buccaneers are 0-3 and the defense has given up 30.7 points per game, 402.3 yds per game, and 188 yds rushing per game. However, on this day, it wouldn't be LaDanian Tomlinson and the Charger running game that would do the Bucs in, San Diego was held to 90 yds rushing. It would be the passing game that would do the damage in this one as Rivers carved up the Bucs defense, extending drives on 3rd down by converting 53% of their 11 opportunities.

After the initial drive of the game by the Chargers was stuffed, Tampa Bay drove to the San Diego 42 yd line. Quarterback Jeff Garcia connected on a screen to Wide Receiver Antonio Bryant, who appeared to have blocking and a developing lane in front of him. Bryant was hit from behind by Chargers defensive lineman Luis Castillo, fumbled and San Diego safety Clinton Hart pounced on the ball to end the Bucs threat. The Chargers took the ball at their own 41 and drove 58 yds in 8 plays, culminating in a 11 yd touchdown pass to Brandon Manumaleuna in the the flat for a touchdown to give San Diego an early 7-0 lead.

Bucs kick returner Clifton Smith showed why he's headed to Hawaii, returning the ensuing kickoff 72 yds to the Chargers 11 yd line, setting up B.J. Askew 1 Yd hurdle to tie it at 7. Back came the Chargers, driving back down the field as the 1st quarter bled into the 2nd and finishing up with a 69 yd, 7 play drive where Rivers found Tight End Antonio Gates wide open for an easy touchdown, giving the Chargers the lead back with 13:37 left in the 1st half.

After the Bucs offense stalled, San Diego marched right back down the football field, converting two 3rd and long situations along the way before setting for a 28 yd Nate Kaeding field goal with 5:24 left in the second to give the Chargers a 17-7 lead. After the teams exchanged 3 and outs, the Bucs offense showed a little life after the two minute warning, driving 49 yds in 8 plays to set up a 49 yd Matt Bryant field goal with 0:17 left in the half to cut the advantage to 17-10. After the ensuing kickoff, Phillip Rivers connected with an inexplicably wide open Vincent Jackson for 25 yds to the Tampa Bay 39, from there Nate Kaeding drilled a 57 yd field goal to reestablish the Chargers 10 point lead going into the locker room, 20-10.

After the Bucs received the 2nd half kickoff, Jeff Garcia drove Tampa Bay 78 yds, converting three 3rd downs on the drive with both his arm and his feet and using those feet to scamper into the endzone to cut the Charger lead to 20-17. The Bucs defense forced a 3 and out and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 18. A run by Warrick Dunn and a pass to Dunn achieved a first down at the 29. On 1st and 10, Garcia took the snap, scambled keeping the play alive then spotted a wide open Antonio Bryant deep down field, Garcia heaved the ball while Bryant waited what seemed an eternity and fielded the catch like a punt, Bryant hauled it in a raced 71 yds for the touchdown giving the Buccaneers their first lead of the game, 24-20 with 5:19 left in the 3rd quarter.

The Chargers would take over the game from there. Phillip Rivers engineered an 11 play, 63 yd drive that extinguised the remainder of the 3rd quarter. On the first play of the 4th quarter and facing 3rd and goal from the Tampa Bay 5, Rivers scrambled, avoiding the rush and keeping the play alive long enough to find Antonio Gates in the back of the end zone for his second touchdown of the day, the Chargers retook the lead 27-24.

After the teams exchanged 3 and outs, the Bucs again had their drive stall. Punter Josh Bidwell blasted a 58 yd bomb to the San Diego 11, but returner Darren Sproles returned the punt 43 yds to the Buccaneer 46, nearly breaking it for the score. Sproles would get his score as 4 plays later, Rivers dropped a screen pass to Sproles who bolted 32 yds for a killer touchdown to give San Diego a commanding 34-24 lead with 7:18 left.

The Bucs tried to rally one last time, Garcia passing and scrambling the to San Diego 48, in the process getting a severe gash over his nose that gushed blood. Facing 3rd and 4, Garcia tried to fit in a pass to Ike Hillard between two defenders, the pass was deflected and intercepted by Antoine Cason, who raced down the sideline 59 yds for the touchdown to provide San Diego their final margin of victory.

Luke McCown came in for mop up duty but accomplished little and the Chargers ran out the clock, keeping their playoff hopes alive and severely damaging the Buccaneers in the process.

Tampa Bay now needs help to make the post season and face a resurgent Oakland Raiders team that has put 26 or more points on their last two opponents. A team that just three weeks ago was 9-3 and hoping to win a first round bye now faces the reality that they will be home for the post-season. A loss to Oakland and the Bucs promising season comes to a crashing close.

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