The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can stop thinking about moving up a seed in the NFC playoffs.
It simply won't happen.
Sunday's loss to Houston all but sealed their fate as the No. 4 playoff seed. Naturally, there is the formality of actually winning the NFC South. But that should happen soon.
The Buccaneers squandered a great opportunity — at least on paper — to stay in a race for a No. 3 playoff seed. They needed to win.
They didn't. They didn't look that great losing, either.
The Bucs defense had a terrible time getting off the field on third down. They gave up way too many underneath completions to backup Sage Rosenfels. The Texans moved the chains with short passes when their running game sputtered. There's no excuse for that when you make a team one-dimensional.
The Bucs offense seemed to lack a spark after failing on that 4th-and-2 early in the game. Then Ike Hilliard went down with a shoulder injury, sapping a valuable underneath option for QB Luke McCown. Then McCown fumbled a snap. And you know the rest.
Don't forget the special teams. Their coverage on Andre Davis' kickoff return will be dissected all week. Let me save you some time. It was their worst job of containment this year. The replay made that very clear.
Game like this happen, even to winning teams. I don't believe the Bucs will lose focus because of it.
They'll just lose a chance for an easier Wild Card game.
Dallas (No. 1), Green Bay (No. 2) and Seattle (No. 3) all won on Sunday. The Bucs (No. 4) are now a game behind the Seahawks. Because Seattle beat Tampa Bay in the season opener, the Bucs would have to win their remaining games, and Seattle would have to lose two of their final three to give the Bucs the No. 3 seed.
That's not going to happen.
So the Bucs need to clinch on Sunday (if they don't clinch Monday night, should Atlanta beat New Orleans).
Then it needs to concentrate on getting this team healthy for the postseason.
Then it needs to start focusing on the New York Giants, who will most likely be their opponent in the Wild Card playoffs at Raymond James Stadium the first weekend of January.
Unless something unexpected happens.
Hey, it's been that kind of season, right?
QB Sage Rosenfels : I really thought this guy was going to wilt, but he didn't. Yes, he made two big mistakes. But he offset that with three touchdown passes and a great grasp for what head coach Gary Kubiak wanted to do offensively.
DE Greg White : Just when you think the journeyman can't have another great game, he goes out and sacks Rosenfels three times and forces two fumbles. The Texans drafted White in 2002. You think they got the message?
RB Earnest Graham : He went over 1,000 total yards for the season, scored a touchdown in his fifth straight game and is a TD away from double digits for the season. It's not his fault the Bucs had to pass in the fourth quarter down 14 points.
DT Jovan Haye: He recovered both of the fumbles White forced.
WR Andre Johnson: People forget about this guy because he plays in Houston. But if not for the eight weeks he lost to injury, he'd be having a monstrous year.
Bucs HC Jon Gruden : After calling a terrific game last week, he seemed to be on his heels all game. I think that started by going for 4th-and-2 on the opening drive and failing to get it. The Texans defense felt confident after that. It turned out to be a tactical mistake.
LB DeMeco Ryans : I was expecting more than six tackles out of last year's defensive rookie of the year. I thought he would be all over the place. The Bucs kept him impact to a minimum.
Third down conversions: The Bucs were 3-of-13 on third down. The Texans were significantly better. At this point, there isn't much for the Bucs to do except not get to third down. And by the way, the Bucs defense has to do a better job of getting offenses off the field on third down. Their third-down defense was ineffective on Sunday.
Bucs kickoff coverage: After doing great work all season, they gave up a 97-yard touchdown return that they shouldn't have. The coverage looked lazy on replays. I'll break it down in Film Session tomorrow and we'll see.
THE MATCHUPS IN REVIEW
I highlighted six key matchups entering Sunday's game. How did they turn out? Check it out in this quick review:
BUCS WR JOEY GALLOWAY VS. TEXANS SECONDARY: This group slowed Galloway down until late in the game, when allowing him to catch 15-yard underneath routes didn't matter much. The Texans used zones liberally, which allowed them to bracket coverage and handled Galloway the few times they used man. The Texans won this one.
BUCS LT DONALD PENN VS. TEXANS RDE MARIO WILLIAMS: Williams had six tackles, a sack and two hurries going up against Penn. The slight edge goes to Williams.
BUCS TE ALEX SMITH VS. TEXANS MLB DEMECO RYANS: You can't be covered if you don't get thrown to that much. Smith caught one pass on a seam route. Ryans wasn't in coverage. Ryans had six tackles and no real impact on the game. Call it a draw.
TEXANS WR ANDRE JOHNSON VS. BUCS SECONDARY: Johnson never got deep on the Bucs, but he caught nine passes for 82 yards and a touchdown as the Texans exploited underneath routes. Johnson wins.
TEXANS LG KASEY STUDDARD VS. BUCS DT CHRIS HOVAN: Studdard left the game in the third quarter with an injury. Hovan had three tackles. Hovan wins. At least he finished the game.
TEXANS QB SAGE ROSENFELS VS. BUCS BACK SEVEN: Rosenfels threw three touchdown passes and stuck to the game plan — underneath routes and moving the chains. He gets extra points for using his tight ends when they found mismatches in man coverage against the Bucs cornerbacks. Rosenfels wins.
I made 10 predictions before the game. How did I do? Let's check, shall we?
1. Tampa Bay will rush for at least 135 yards. No. The Bucs rushed for 71 yards. This is what happens when they don't play with a lead. They get away from the run, which is the strength of this offense right now.
2. Jeff Garcia will start and be his usual self. If standing on the sidelines and watching is what you consider Garcia's "usual self," then I was right. He did not start on Sunday. The Bucs said they had no intention of starting him. I'll be over here wiping the egg off my face.
3. But Joey Galloway will catch at least two deep balls. Nope. Statistically, he had a solid day. But Luke McCown was about a half-yard too long on a deep ball that would have changed the game.
4. The Bucs won't struggle on third down. The Bucs were 3-of-13 for 23 percent (the Texans were 10-of-17 for 59 percent). I'm baffled as to how the Bucs have been so ineffective on third down all season. As good a team as the Buccaneers are offensively, they should be converting more.
5. Michael Bennett will see more carries. If more equals none, then I was right. Are they going to use this guy at all?
1. Sage Rosenfels will throw at least two interceptions. No. He did fumble the ball twice, but no interceptions. Rosenfels, in fact, threw three touchdown passes on a secondary that has played well most of this season.
2. The Texans will rush for less than 100 yards. The Texans only managed 71 yards. Ron Dayne was hampered by an injury. The Texans run blocking is a mess right now due to injury. But they still won.
3. The Bucs will get to Rosenfels for at least three sacks. Heck Bucs DE Greg White did that on his own. But that's all the Bucs mustered. I expected at least two more given Houston's line woes.
4. Tampa Bay will force at least three turnovers. They managed two. They really needed four.
5. Tampa Bay will hold the Texans to less than 17 points. Nope. In fact, only the Colts have scored more points on the Bucs this season than the Texans.
I picked the Bucs to win, 24-13. I dropped to 6-6 in picking the winner, and dropped to 5-3 when I pick the Bucs.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.