A Nate Clements interception set up Shaun Hill's 23-yard touchdown pass to RB Frank Gore early in the fourth quarter helped give the San Francisco 49ers enough cushion to withstand a late rally and notch a 21-19 upset of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Monster Park.
With the loss, Tampa Bay (9-6) dropped out of the race for the No. 3 playoff seed, as Seattle (10-5) defeated Baltimore to clinch the No. 3 seed outright.
Tampa Bay is now the No. 4 playoff seed and will face the No. 5 playoff seed at home in the first weekend of January in the Wild Card playoffs. At the moment, that opponent would be the New York Giants, who clinched a playoff berth with a victory over Buffalo.
Tampa Bay drove for a touchdown in the final minutes, as QB Luke McCown connected with TE Jerramy Stevens for a 24-yard touchdown pass with 1:20 left. McCown completed his 2-point conversion pass, but WR Michael Clayton's back foot was out of bounds when he came down with the catch. That would have tied the game.
The TD catch was Stevens' second of the day.
San Francisco (5-10), playing out the string, continued their mastery of the Buccaneers at home, where the Niners are now 11-1 against the Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers chose to rest many of their starters in the second half, and the Niners took advantage of that — plus a break late early in the fourth quarter — to give themselves an 8-point lead.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, McCown threw a slant to TE Alex Smith, who was unable to hang onto the football. Smith's tip ended up in the hands of Niners CB Nate Clements, who took the catch 62 yards to the Bucs 23-yard line.
On the next play, Hill threw his third touchdown pass of the day to Gore in the flat, who ran easily into the end zone to give the Niners an 8-point lead.
Hill connected with TE Vernon Davis for a 5-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give the 49ers a 14-13 lead over Tampa Bay, along with a first-half touchdown pass to Darrell Jackson. Otherwise, his stellar numbers of the past game and a half took a tumble.
The Buccaneers turned the ball over on the doorstep of their end zone at 10:57 of the third quarter, as 49ers LB Patrick Willis forced a fumble while trailing McCown. The 49ers recovered the fumble inside the Bucs 20-yard line.
Two plays later Hill left the game after taking a big hit from Bucs DE Gaines Adams. Adams led with his helmet into Hill's ribs, leading to a roughing the passer penalty. Chris Weinke replaced Hill for one play, and then Hill returned for the touchdown pass to Davis.
Tampa Bay led the game at halftime, 13-7, after Bucs starting QB Jeff Garcia to connect with Stevens for a touchdown.
Garcia hit Stevens on a sideline route, using a pump fake to freeze the defender and allow Steven the time to create enough space to make the catch and the 24-yard touchdown with 3:49 left before halftime.
The Buccaneers got the football back after Bucs S Jermaine Phillips forced Davis to fumble after a first-down catch, a fumble Bucs LB Barrett Ruud recovered to give the Bucs possession at the 49ers 36-yard line with 5:33 left.
Tampa Bay appeared to be resting several of its veterans as the first half ended. Garcia, WR Joey Galloway and RB Earnest Graham were all on the bench at the end of the half. Also, WR Maurice Stovall left the game early in the second quarter with an injury. He left on a cart and with his right forearm and elbow immobilized.
Hill, who entered the game with a 78.2 completion percentage and 107.4 passer rating in his last six quarters, was 5-of-13 for 57 yards with a touchdown and an interception at halftime.
The Buccaneers' failure to score touchdowns on their first two drives of the game came back to haunt them, as the 49ers took a 7-6 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
The 49ers failed to do anything on their first two drives. But on their third possession, a mix of strong running by Gore and short passes by Hill led to Hill's 21-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Jackson just four seconds into the second quarter.
Tampa Bay dominated yardage and time of possession in the first quarter, but failed to score a touchdown on either possession, settling for field goals of 34 yards and 22 yards by Matt Bryant.
The second field goal was especially unfortunate, considering Garcia set up the Bucs up at the 49ers 5-yard line with a 34-yard pass to TE Alex Smith up the seam. But the Bucs were unable to convert on the next three downs leading to Bryant's short field goal.
Tampa Bay received a nice break in the second quarter as the 49ers tackled Bucs punt returner Micheal Spurlock, forcing an apparent fumble recovered by San Francisco. The Buccaneers challenged the call, saying Spurlock was down by contact and game officials reversed the call, giving the Buccaneers the football.
The Bucs traveled west short-handed, as they left FB B.J. Askew and DE Patrick Chukwurah behind in Tampa due to injury. Rookie FB Byron Storer started for Askew.
Want the inside scoop on the Buccaneers, from locker room updates to insider information on free agency and the NFL Draft? Click here to subscribe.
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
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.