Brian Clark had never blocked a punt. Not in peewee, high school or college. So when he swatted down the boot by Michael Koenen that was scooped by Sabby Piscitelli and returned to the Falcons 22 with 2:29 left in the fourth quarter, everything seemed possible for the Bucs. They were in position for their 10th win, possibly clinching a playoff spot, and even had a decent shot at defending their NFC South Division title. But what the Bucs did after that in Sunday's 13-10 overtime loss was akin to running the winning lottery ticket through the wash, dropping the engagement ring down the sink or knocking the urn off of the fireplace mantle. On the next play, emergency starter Brian Griese fired a short pass to Michael Clayton to give the Bucs a first down at the Atlanta 12.
But the Bucs blew the game and, perhaps, their season. Four plays, including one nullified by a holding penalty, netted minus-8 yards and forced them to settle for Matt Bryant's 38-yard field goal that sent the game into overtime.
The Bucs won the coin toss, but their only possession was crippled by Atlanta's fourth sack of Griese. On the ensuing possession, Michael Turner ran six times for 34 of his 152 yards to help set up Jason Elam's 34-yard winning field goal.
"I don't know what to say," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "What can you say? Should've won. Had a chance to win. Didn't."
In losing their second road division game in six days, the Bucs (9-5) failed to take advantage of Clark's block and three forced turnovers, including an interception by cornerback Aqib Talib at the Bucs 1 and a forced fumble by safety Jermaine Phillips as Jason Rader was about to cross the goal line.
The loss means the Bucs have painted themselves into a corner, most likely needing to win their final two games, both at home against San Diego and Oakland, to be in the playoff discussion.
"We've had two tough games," coach Jon Gruden said of Sunday's loss and Monday's to the Panthers. "We've been on the road. We played two games in six days against teams that haven't lost at home very much. We're a good football team. We're overcoming a lot. I'm not going to underestimate that. We're overcoming a lot in terms of injuries. I love our team. I'm proud of them, and we've just got to keep fighting."
But the Bucs are leaking parts all over the road to the postseason, and they know it.
Phillips broke his right arm for the third time in his career and is lost for the season. He missed three games with a broken left arm last month.
Sunday, quarterback Jeff Garcia tested his sore right leg (just below the calf) and was unable to move adequately, prompting Gruden to choose Griese over Luke McCown.
Griese had not played since Oct. 5 because of tendonitis in his right (throwing) elbow. He finished 26-of-37 for 269 yards, one touchdown and one interception but ran into sacks, including three by John Abraham.
The Bucs also wasted another big game by Antonio Bryant, who caught eight passes for 108 yards and the team's only touchdown.
"I'm 0-for-2," said Bryant, who had 200 yards receiving and two touchdowns Monday. "I'm not going to take any credit away from Atlanta, but I don't feel like they are a better team than us. I can't even say I feel like they were a better team than us (Sunday). But you can't play that type of football."
Tampa Bay was penalized 11 times for 76 yards, four for 37 coming on punt and kick returns. They had a false start on third and inches in the fourth quarter when Jeff Faine failed to snap the ball on a quick count. (After an incompletion, Matt Bryant missed a 53-yard field goal.)
Garcia said he hopes to play Sunday, and Gruden confirmed he is the starter if healthy.
But on a defense with tackle Chris Hovan (knee) inactive Sunday, tackle Jovan Haye (knee) gimpy, Phillips out and coordinator Monte Kiffin confirming he's headed to the University of Tennessee to coach with son Lane, well, the buzzards appear to be circling.
"Our work has been cut out for us for a while," defensive end Kevin Carter said. "We played ourselves into a position where these games matter. We better get ourselves together and get ourselves together quickly.
"These last two games are going to dictate whether or not we make the playoffs. We played hard, but we came up short. But we still have a chance."