Not in the Cards
They huddled around two portable televisions on their charter flight home, sky-high one moment, then alarmed by the steepness of their descent. The Bucs defeated the Bengals 35-0 Sunday to finish a turbulent regular season 8-8, and now they were fit to be tied. The New York Giants did their part by winning at Philadelphia. And the San Diego Chargers turned a fourth-and-20 situation into a tying touchdown at 7:24 p.m. that threatened to send their game against Arizona into overtime.

But when the Bucs made their final touch down of the season at Tampa International Airport on Sunday night, you could tell by the somber faces that they had not arrived at their intended destination. The Cardinals earned the final NFC wild card with a 16-13 victory over the Chargers on Chris Jacke's 52-yard field goal on the game's final play.

"We put ourselves in that situation," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "We didn't win enough games to get in. That's just the way it goes. We won our last game. We won four of our last five, and that was a positive. We had a disappointing year. We didn't play as well as we could have, and that's why we're not in the playoffs. We had our chances. We lost two games to Detroit, we lost to Washington and we lost to New Orleans. We lost four games to sub-.500 teams and those are all teams Arizona beat. That's the way we made our bed, so to speak, and we have to live with it."

In a way, maybe coming so close to the playoffs is the only way the Bucs will realize how far they have to go. "We grew a lot. We realized that early expectations and predictions are irrelevant," center Tony Mayberry said. "Playing every Sunday is the only thing that counts. Just showing up a lot of times doesn't matter. It's a tough thing to learn, especially with a young team. One play during the season can literally make the difference. That's the biggest lesson. This is going to make us more focused on everybody doing their job Week 1 to Week 16."

The Bucs were attempting to become the third team in history to earn a wild card with an 8-8 record, but they needed to finish in a three-way tie with New York and Arizona. The Giants, who were eliminated by the Tampa Bay victory, did their part by winning 20-10. But when Jacke's field goal squeezed just inside the right upright, the Bucs' season was over before the football hit the ground. "It really is disappointing," Bucs receiver Robb Thomas said. "A lot of people on the plane were talking about the opportunities we blew early in the year to be in this situation where we had to depend on somebody else."

For a team many picked to play in the Super Bowl after reaching the playoffs last season for the first time in 15 years, going 8-8 was an enormous disappointment. But if you are into silver linings, consider this: The Bucs showed heart by winning four of their last five games to finish with the fourth-best record in club history. On Sunday, they played their most complete game. The defense shut out the Bengals. The special teams took advantage of a high punt snap, forced a fumble and blocked a field goal. The offense turned them into touchdowns. "I feel like we're riding right now," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Like we're just getting to the best football we can play. The past four or five weeks, except for giving up that lead against Washington, we've played great on both sides and special teams, too. That's what we get for not doing it early in the year."

It was the prevailing sentiment in the locker room after the game. Why didn't they do this sooner? "While it would have ended on a good note, it will also have ended badly," John Lynch said. "Man, like why we didn't do that all year long. So that's going to be there no matter what."

There was little consolation in individual accomplishments. Warrick Dunn eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau with 89 yards on 19 carries. Mike Alstott scored a career- high three touchdowns. Trent Dilfer threw a pair of TD passes to tie his club record with 21. "I think our whole team wanted to finish and win the last five games and be 9-7 and then, say, hey, if five in a row wasn't good enough, we still knew we were playing good football," Dungy said. "Last week's game hurt us from a pride standpoint. This was all we could do, was finish up and play this game well, and I was glad to see that and I think we'll feel better about ourselves because of it."

So what happened? How did the only team to beat the Minnesota Vikings also lose twice to the Lions? How did a defense that finished second in the NFL blow fourth-quarter leads to Jacksonville and Washington? "In the first part of the season, we were not making a lot of big plays," Dungy said. "We weren't creating a lot of turnovers on defense and we weren't taking advantage of the ones we had. We weren't scoring in the red zone on offense. The latter part of the season, we got the turnovers, we were getting the sacks and fumbles and interceptions. Offensively, we stayed away from them for the most part as the season went on. That's probably the biggest difference. If you don't turn the ball over and get them when you're on defense, you're going to win."

For a while Sunday, it looked for all the world that the Bucs would get new life. Wasn't that the story of their season? They weren't out of it when they were 4-7. It wasn't over when they lost Dec. 19 at Washington. And when the Chargers tied the score, a loud roar filled the cabin. "When they scored on fourth and 20, everybody was cheering like crazy," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "You would've thought that we were playing."

But then came a long kickoff return by the Cardinals' Eric Metcalf. Then a completion by Jake Plummer to get Jacke in field-goal range. Three seconds remained. The last kick was right in the teeth. "It feels strange to have the season over with," Thomas said. "It seems like the season went by so quick in a lot of ways. We won and that's all we could control today. It's disappointing things didn't work out. I think we all felt it was going to work out. We just had a feeling it was going to be our week, but the breaks didn't happen in that Arizona game. It's our fault we're not there."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1998