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Gary Shelton: Opportunity knocks, but Tampa Bay Buccaneers stub their fingers

TAMPA

The game was in hand, and all possibilities were alive. In those moments before it all turned sour, excellence had returned to the Tampa Bay Bucs.

And then it was gone again.

The division was still winnable, and the playoffs seemed probable. In that brief snapshot of time, before it all went wrong, you could finally believe in the turnaround of a team.

And then it vanished once more.

To fully understand all the Bucs lost this time, to really understand all they left unclaimed, you have to roll the tape back to early in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons. You have to grasp the feeling of the moment as the Bucs took a 24-14 lead and, for the briefest of times, looked as legitimate as at any point this season.

With 10 minutes to play, just before the darkness arrived, the Bucs finally looked like a contender. The team that hadn't beaten anyone good was two scores ahead of the best team in the NFC, and the team that led the league in doubts seemed to have won over the crowd once more.

And just like that, it was easy to not only imagine the Bucs in the playoffs but imagine them succeeding once they arrived. For the briefest of moments, the Bucs looked as if they were going to win a football game, and a very large portion of credibility along with it.

Then they collapsed.

And in the rubble, everything the Bucs seemed ready to claim was squandered.

The Bucs blew their lead, and their opportunity, and their validation, in a 28-24 game that must have felt like a stake to the heart. From here, the season looks uphill again. From here, the playoffs seem far away. From here, the Bucs still look like a team that has improved, but not nearly enough.

A dozen times, in a dozen ways, over a dozen plays, this one slipped away. In the days to come, and perhaps in the offseason that will follow, these plays will return to the Bucs in their nightmares.

"That was the worst (loss) this year," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "You think about the opponent and how important it was. We had the victory in our hands. We let it slip away. There were a lot of things we could have done to win."

For instance:

• The Bucs held a 10-point lead, and they were not ruthless enough to make it stand.

• They had a half-dozen shots as Eric Weems returned a kickoff 102 yards, and they were not efficient enough to stop him.

• They forced the Falcons into a third and 20 on Atlanta's winning drive, and they were not poised enough to get off the field.

• Even after surrendering the lead, they had enough time and enough field position to pull off another fourth-quarter comeback of their own, and they were not special enough to finish it off.

More than anything, the Bucs simply didn't look ripe enough to win this game. They did not look accomplished enough to stop the Falcons when it counted most, or deep enough to overcome their injuries, or mature enough to reclaim momentum as it slipped away. In the end, they could not stop the avalanche that buried them.

"At some point, you have to stop using the excuse of being young," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "At some point, it is just an excuse, and we are not prepared to make (excuses). We can't wait until we're veterans to close out games. We have to do it the next four weeks."

For a football team, it is a good thing not to embrace the available excuses. There have been a lot of coaches, and some of them worked around here, who would have passed out X-rays and photocopies of birth certificates in an effort to make excuses. They would have talked about how they didn't want to make excuses, and then they would have spent a half-hour listing them.

That said, the Bucs are young, and they do need some more growing up. Sunday's finish seemed like a perfect example.

Yes, the kickoff return hurt; on the other hand, the Bucs still led by three. Yes, the third-and-20 completion to Roddy White was a killer, but the Falcons still had to drive 52 yards (and convert two other third downs) to take the lead. Yes, the Bucs scored 24 points, but they also failed to pick up a third and 1 in Atlanta territory and kicked a field goal on another fourth and 1.

In other words, the Bucs spent the last 10 minutes of the game looking, once again, like Someday's Team. That said, a 10-point lead should be enough.

A key stop isn't too much to ask.

What did the Bucs lose on Sunday? The answer is in what they would have won had they held on. Think about that. The Bucs would have been 8-4 with four games to play, and they would have had their biggest victory of the year, and they still would have been in the NFC South race. They would have erased questions. They would have added believers.

At 7-5, it's a little harder to see any of that. The Bucs still have possibilities, but they need to do a lot of winning over the next month.

Sunday, they did not know how to close out a game.

After this, they must find a way to close out a season.

Gary Shelton can be reached at shelton@sptimes.com.

Gary Shelton: Opportunity knocks, but Tampa Bay Buccaneers stub their fingers 12/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 6, 2010 12:08am]

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