Jon Gruden was angry, Brian Griese was stunned, Greg Spires was hurting on the inside, and Derrick Brooks tried to remain positive.
After the Buccaneers 21-17 collapse at home against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the one feeling not flying around the Bucs locker room was happiness, deservedly so.
It was even more painful considering that the Bucs manhandled an outclassed New Orleans team for 56 minutes, but mistakes and a horrible turnover in the last minutes killed any chance the Bucs have to go to the playoffs. They remain bunched with a group of less-than-mediocre teams at 5-8, including the Saints, but would lose out in almost any tiebreaker.
Leading 17-7 with 3:33 remaining, the Bucs gave it away. The Saints charged down to the Bucs 4-yard line when quarterback Aaron Brooks found Joe Horn in the back of the end zone to make it 17-14. It was the first offensive touchdown scored against the Bucs in Tampa in 13 quarters, but the third straight loss in which they have been beaten for a late touchdown.
Still, all the Bucs needed was to run out the clock to tie Carolina at 6-8 with a home game against the Panthers next Sunday. Things were looking pretty good. Until Michael Pittman may or may not have fumbled the ball at the Bucs 41 with just over two minutes remaining. Pittman's knee appeared to be down when the ball popped loose, but after review, it was ruled a fumble.
Gruden seethed after the game.
"It was stunning to me,'' Gruden said. "I thought he was down. The ruling stands. I thought he was down. I thought he was clearly down. In the press box we were all looking at the same video the officials were looking at. We'll wake up tomorrow and realize he wasn't down and that it was a turnover and they capitalized.''
Pittman has been putting up big numbers all season and ran for 131 yards, his seventh 100-yard rushing game this season, but he's also been plagued with key fumbles.
"This year I guess the fumbleitis hit me,'' Pittman said. "I don't fumble, but this year I have. In practice I have guys stripping at me. Tonight I feel like I let a lot of people down, the fans, my teammates, and the coaches, because they were depending on me and I didn't come through.''
The Saints capitalized, but not before the Bucs defense put up a stand, forcing the Saints backwards. But, on fourth-and-12, Brooks escaped tacklers and barely made it to the first down marker. A few plays later he found Donte Stallworth at the goal line with 33 seconds remaining. Game over.
It hurts, it hurts,'' Spires said. "There's nothing much you can say. We gave it away. That's all I can say. I don't want to point any fingers. We gave it away. If I would have stopped (Brooks) with that 12-yard sprint, we would've won.''
While Pittman's fumble was crucial, Griese committed another key turnover just before the half, moving the ball into the red zone before tossing an interception in the back of the end zone.
The game started off on an ugly note for the Bucs. Aaron Stecker fumbled the opening kickoff, scrambled for the ball, then raced 98 yards for a touchdown to put New Orleans up, 7-0. The Bucs themselves have never returned a kickoff for a touchdown and, ironically, Stecker is the Bucs all-time kickoff return leader.
The Bucs came back on their first drive, a six-play effort capped off by Griese's 3-yard pass to Joey Galloway that tied the score.
Galloway gave the Bucs the lead early in the third quarter, taking a punt back 59 yards for a score. Jay Taylor's 37-yard field goal into the wind made it 17-7 and the Bucs defense held strong until the final minutes.
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