TAMPA — If Sunday's game at New Orleans is indeed the last time the Bucs play this season, they will finish a hair shy of making the postseason.
That likely will leave the Bucs plenty of time during the offseason to daydream about the possibilities, particularly the ones associated with the handful of plays that arguably affected the season's outcome.
The issue is so unavoidable it's already on the Bucs' minds. Coach Raheem Morris used some of the team's most frustrating shortcomings to illustrate a point in his message to players Friday.
"I told them it's a game of inches," Morris said. "I'm going to go back (in the offseason) and show those guys some of the games that we're talking about. (You think), it's coming down to one game. Wait a minute. It comes down to one play. Every play is that important.
"We'll get a chance to look at that Roddy White third-and-20 (conversion). We'll get a chance to look back at the fourth and inches against Atlanta. We'll get a chance to go back and look at the (kickoff) return that Eric Weems got. We'll get a chance to look at the big-time catch that Calvin Johnson made on third down and 8. … It's a great lesson for a young team."
Here, then, are five plays that might keep the Bucs out of the playoffs:
The Bucs pulled out all the stops in trying to cool the red-hot Falcons on Nov. 7 in Atlanta. They attempted an onside kick and got an 89-yard kickoff-return touchdown from Micheal Spurlock, and Mike Williams scored on a 58-yard catch-and-run.
But trailing 27-21 with less than three minutes to play, the Bucs failed to get a few inches.
Facing fourth and inches at the Atlanta 2-yard line, running back LeGarrette Blount failed to hit a sizable hole opened on the right side by guard Davin Joseph, opting instead to bounce the run outside, where he was corralled by safety Thomas DeCoud and teammates for no gain.
The Bucs had a chance to move to 6-2 for the NFC's best record. Instead, they left with regrets.
Heap of trouble
The Bucs found themselves in a slugfest with the Ravens on Nov. 28, playing to a 3-3 tie until late in the first half. Then, with 3:04 remaining before halftime, Ravens tight end Todd Heap exploited a busted coverage, running unchecked down the left hash marks for a 65-yard touchdown reception. The breakdown, by all accounts, appeared to be attributed to safety Sabby Piscitelli, who was waived two days after the 17-10 loss.
Those seven points proved the difference, but the frustration was compounded minutes later by a questionable pass-interference call against rookie cornerback Myron Lewis. The foul gave the Ravens 24 yards and set up a touchdown with 32 seconds left in the half.
The Bucs shut out Baltimore in the second half but couldn't climb out of the hole.
This also was the game in which the Bucs lost Joseph and safety Cody Grimm to season-ending injuries.
Falcons punch back
Using, of all things, a touchdown pass from fullback Earnest Graham to tight end John Gilmore, the Bucs staked themselves a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead against the NFC's best team, the Falcons, and appeared well on the way to the season's biggest win Dec. 5.
Moments later, that suddenly seemed less certain.
On the ensuing kickoff, a series of poor tackling efforts, specifically from receiver Maurice Stovall, allowed Weems to wiggle his way loose for a 102-yard touchdown return. The play sparked what would become a successful rally for the Falcons in a 28-24 victory.
Of course, the Bucs had a chance later that same game to prevent the Falcons' come-from-behind win, but they allowed White to catch a 25-yard pass on third and 20 with about 71/2 minutes to go. White slipped between safety Corey Lynch and cornerback E.J. Biggers to grab a strike from quarterback Matt Ryan.
The play kept alive what proved to be the winning touchdown drive rather than resulting in what likely would have been a decision by Atlanta to punt. In keeping with the what-if theme, the Bucs lost standout cornerback Aqib Talib early in the game, leaving them without a defender who would've been assigned to White all day.
Winslow gets robbed
Perhaps the most deflating loss came Dec. 19 against Detroit.
And there might not have been a more shocking call against the Bucs this season than the one that came with 9:02 left. That's when quarterback Josh Freeman rolled out of the pocket, buying time, before hitting tight end Kellen Winslow in the back of the end zone for an apparent 2-yard touchdown.
The score would have given the Bucs a four-point lead after trailing 17-14, but the play was nullified because of an offensive pass-interference call against Winslow. The Bucs went on to lose 23-20 in overtime.
The added insult? The league office later notified the Bucs the call was incorrect.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.