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Comedy of errors is costly for Bucs

How rude. More than 68,000 folks showed up at Tampa Stadium Sunday, but the new-and-improved Tampa Bay Bucs never even bothered to make an appearance.

For the discriminating Tampa Bay fan, there was something for everyone in the stunning 17-13 loss to Dallas. Interceptions (three). Penalties (6 for 50 yards). Sacks (six). Fumbles (two). You name it, the Bucs botched it.

The bottom line? Dallas got it done, and the Bucs got the boot. Again. For the second time in three weeks, Tampa Bay fell prey to a Cowboys upset, this one worse than the first.

"It's very disappointing," said Bucs coach Ray Perkins, whose club was dealt a 14-10 defeat in Dallas on Oct. 7. "We didn't do some things when we had a chance. We looked sloppy. We were awful in some spots. We didn't do what it took to win the game."

No, but the Bucs (4-3) had plenty to do with losing it. Rest assured, Troy Aikman's game-winning 28-yard touchdown pass to Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin was the big blow, coming as it did in the final frantic minute. But the Bucs' grasp of victory started slipping away sooner. Much sooner.

In the first half alone, Tampa Bay failed to protect quarterback Vinny Testaverde (he was sacked four times in their opening four possessions), missed a 37-yard field goal try, and ended two possessions on turnovers (a Testaverde interception and Reggie Cobb fumble).

In the second half, the Bucs kept on misfiring, thanks to a fumble by running back John Harvey, a pair of costly holding calls, two sacks and an interception.

Despite stiff competition, the day's most glaring error wasn't all that tough to spot. With Tampa Bay up 10-3 and just 6 minutes, 46 seconds remaining, Dallas cornerback Issiac Holt stepped in front of a Testaverde spiral and took it back 64 yards for a touchdown. One play, one pass, one 10-10 tie.

"(Holt) was playing so deep off me," said Danny Peebles, the Bucs' intended receiver on the play. "I thought it was going to be an easy completion. I ran the (out) route, turned around and the ball was coming perfectly. The next thing I know, he was streaking by me. To be honest, I don't know if they read the play or what. He made a great play. I never saw him."

Ah, but Bucs fans have seen it all before. Five weeks ago against the Rams, Los Angeles cornerback Bobby Humphery pulled off a similar heist, taking a Testaverde pass 44 yards for a game-turning touchdown in a 35-14 loss.

"We'd called a quick out on the play," said Testaverde, who later left the game with a recurrence of a painful toe bruise first suffered in Dallas. "(Holt) made a great play on the ball. He broke real quick and it turned out it hurt us."

"I didn't see (Humphery's) play on film, so I wasn't looking for anything special," Holt said. "I just got a good jump on the ball. They came back to what had been working for them and I took a gamble."

With Testaverde out, all was not lost, however. Bucs backup Chris Chandler stepped into a third-and-7 from the Dallas 30 and connected with receiver Frank Pillow for 23 yards to the 7.

Three plays later, Chandler struck again, firing a third-and-7 bullet to receiver Willie Drewrey for the apparent go-ahead score. One more miscue, though: The play was wiped out by a false-start call against Bucs left tackle Paul Gruber.

After a sack, Tampa Bay settled for a 32-yard Steve Christie field goal and a 13-10 cushion with 1:56 remaining. The penalty would prove pivotal, to say the least.

"It definitely was a shock," Chandler said. "I was like, "No way.' In fact I even went up to an (official) and said, "You robbed us.' That's what you almost feel like, like someone just took something from you and there's no way you're going to get it back. It's frustrating. Disappointing. It just kind of stuns you, because I thought we had a touchdown."

Nobody had to tell Gruber the turnaround initiated by his gaffe. The final score said plenty.

"Well, it was a hard count on two," Gruber said. "(Dallas defensive lineman Jim) Jeffcoat jumped and I flinched before the second count. It's probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my career."