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THE BEST

SNUFFING OUT OF A PLAY: Give Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly credit. On a first-quarter lateral to receiver Larry Fitzgerald on first down, Kelly didn't wait for things to happen. Instead, he charged toward Fitzgerald and crushed him just as he caught the ball. The result: a 5-yard loss. Kelly's play pushed Arizona back to its 10, and the Cardinals punted three plays later.

WAY TO MAKE THE OTHER TEAM PAY FOR A MISCUE: One play after Arizona missed a 35-yard field goal in the third quarter, Chris Simms connected with rookie Michael Clayton for a dramatic (if there is such a thing in a game between two lousy teams) 75-yard score. Clayton dodged several defenders, stiff-armed another, then tightroped the sideline for the final 15 or so yards to sneak the ball into the end zone.

ROOKIE RECEIVER ON THE FIELD: Fitzgerald was drafted third overall, Clayton 15th. But Clayton had the better season. So who performed better Sunday? You be the judge. Fitzgerald had three catches for 36 yards and no touchdowns. Clayton had two catches for 86 yards and one touchdown. But Arizona won the game, and a wide-open Clayton dropped a pass that would have converted a fourth and 2 from the Bucs 22 with 2:05 left.

THE WORST

WAY TO ATTACK A TERRIBLE RUSHING DEFENSE: By not running the ball. Wanting to give the inexperienced Simms a chance to prove himself is one thing. It's another to ignore Arizona entered 29th in the league against the run (136.2 yards a game). During the first half, the Bucs threw 20 times and ran it 11 (for 18 yards). They finished with 62 yards on 21 carries.

TIME FOR A FUMBLE: Nothing hurts a comeback bid faster than a turnover. With Tampa Bay trailing 9-7, running back Michael Pittman coughed it up at the Bucs 14 with 7:55 left. His sixth lost fumble this season led to an Arizona field goal.

THING TO DO WHEN YOUR OPPONENT IS PUNTING: After forcing a fourth and 4 at the Arizona 21 with 2:34 left in the first half, the Bucs were flagged during the punt for 12 players on the field. The 5-yard penalty gave Arizona a first down.

BY THE NUMBERS

0: Thousand-yard rushing seasons for Pittman, who finished 2004 with a career-high 926 yards.

1: Plays the Bucs ran before committing their first penalty. They committed 117 in 2004, one fewer than the team record set in 1984.

2: Career starts for Simms.

11: Thousand-yard rushing seasons for Arizona's Emmitt Smith, who finished 63 shy of No. 12.

_ KEITH NIEBUHR, Times staff writer

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