NEW ORLEANS — The Bucs reached the finish line of the regular season, achieving Raheem Morris' race for 10 wins that seemed so improbable nearly five months ago.
But the Bucs won't be making a playoff run.
"We were just young enough and just dumb enough to believe it," cornerback Ronde Barber said of their coach's 10-win challenge, achieved with Sunday's 23-13 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Saints.
"Seventeen weeks later, he's looking pretty prophetic."
Tampa Bay became the first NFC team since 1991 to win 10 games and not earn a spot in the postseason when the Packers beat the Bears 10-3 at Lambeau Field to earn the sixth and final spot.
The Bucs, Packers and Giants finished 10-6, but the Packers advanced because their wins came over better teams than the Bucs, whose victory over the Saints (11-5) was their first this season over a team with a winning record.
As it turns out, the youngest team in the league needed Morris to make his challenge a race to 11.
"I'm going to go talk to him about that right now," Barber said.
Josh Freeman passed for 255 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, including an 18-yarder to rookie Mike Williams on a fake quarterback sneak on fourth and 1 with the Bucs clinging to a three-point lead with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
Sneaking into the playoffs was a much tougher proposition.
The Bucs needed a victory and losses by the Packers and the Giants, whose games were at halftime when the Bucs boarded the charter flight to Tampa.
When Packers safety Nick Collins intercepted Jay Cutler with 10 seconds remaining to preserve the win, word spread on the flight until it was finally announced over the intercom. (Soon after, the Giants hung on to beat the Redskins 17-14.)
Certainly, the Bucs walked away from 2010 feeling like a much different team than the one that went 3-13 in 2009, Morris' first season. But many players said they will lament the few close games that got away.
"I don't think anybody wants to call it a success," said Micheal Spurlock, whose 69-yard kickoff return in the third quarter set up the go-ahead field goal. "If you win 10 games, you're supposed to get an opportunity at the (playoffs). So 10 games will be, yeah, we made strides. But I don't think anybody will be satisfied.
"Everybody is going to look back and find plays; one play that could've won the game for us or lost the game for us. That's what it's about. Go out and play like each and every play could help you win or lose the game. That's what we did (Sunday)."
Although the Saints didn't have much to play for — having secured a wild-card spot and needing Atlanta to stumble against Carolina to earn the top seed — coach Sean Payton went all out.
He kept quarterback Drew Brees, running back Reggie Bush and nearly all of his defensive starters in the game until the Falcons secured their win. Second-year quarterback Chase Daniel entered with 9:15 remaining.
"There was a point where — and we had discussed this as a staff — if in the second half that other game was out of whack, then we were going to back off and not get anybody injured," Payton said. "Our focus completely all week was to get our 12th win just like we would in any game."
The Bucs were simply better.
Despite a laundry list of injuries to starters, they got inspiring performances from little-known rookies and backups.
Dezmon Briscoe, activated from the practice squad just two weeks ago, led the Bucs with four catches for 65 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown in which the rookie tapped both feet inbounds before falling out of the back of the end zone. Freeman wound up completing passes to 18 different receivers this season, an NFL high.
Rookie safety Larry Asante, signed off the Browns' practice squad last month, intercepted Brees to end one drive at the Tampa Bay 8. Tackle Frank Okam, who was on the Bucs' practice squad a few weeks ago, recovered a fumble by running back Julius Jones forced by linebacker Barrett Ruud at the Tampa Bay 4.
"Some of these guys, (reporters) barely even know," Morris said. "They come on. They put a helmet on. They buy into the system. We put them in our Rosetta Stone of coaching. They get out there on the field. They play fast. They play hard. They play together. They play consistent, and that's all you can ask of them. They're playing for each other. You've got to give them that. These guys play hard."
Despite missing the playoffs, the Bucs accomplished a lot of goals and will remember 2010 for record-setting performances.
Rookie LeGarrette Blount, who bulled his way to 66 yards on 19 carries Sunday, finished with 1,007 for the season despite seeing extensive playing time in only 11 games.
Williams, who led all rookies in receiving, had 964 yards and caught his 11th touchdown pass, a franchise record.
Meanwhile, Freeman played his best football in the final two games and finished with 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
"Josh is a stud," Barber said. "The guy is awesome. It's a pleasure to be around a guy like that. It hasn't been that way here, ever.
"Not in my 14 years have I been around a group of guys who just deal with adversity and just keep on marching. It's a credit to them, a credit to Raheem and his guys. I think everybody believes whoever is out there, the system is going to work."
Freeman said while the Bucs made Morris' prophecy of 10 wins come true, they have no one but themselves to blame for finishing out of the postseason.
"There were a number of games we'll look back to and say, 'I should've won that game,' " Freeman said. "Ten wins is what coach said we were striving for. But it was a race to 10. We finished in the last week.
"Next year, we'll definitely try to be in the driver's seat."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]