Foiled on fourth and 1
Despite all of their mistakes in the early part of the game, the Bucs were still in striking distance late in the third quarter.
Trailing 20-14, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-1 play from the Buffalo 43. The call went to RB Derrick Ward, but he was smothered on the left side of the line, well short of a first down.
What went wrong? Bills LB Kawika Mitchell penetrated Tampa Bay's offensive line and hit Leftwich, throwing off the timing of his handoff to Ward, causing the play to break down from the start.
"It was an assignment mistake," Tampa Bay LT Donald Penn said. "We practice that during the week."
Added RG Davin Joseph: "We didn't execute very well on that. It's something we should be able to pick up pretty easily. That put us in a tough situation, where we had to pass a lot in the fourth quarter, and they were bringing some blitzes and hitting Byron. We had our opportunities in the third quarter to be able to establish some drives and we let it go, plain and simple. We just didn't execute in the third quarter."
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Byron Leftwich knew it was bad news the moment the ball left his hands.
The Bills had jumped to a 7-0 lead on their first possession. But Leftwich maneuvered his offense from the Bucs 20 to Buffalo's 25.
But that was when the drive fell apart. On first down, Leftwich dropped back to pass, hoping to find TE Kellen Winslow across the middle. But pressure forced Leftwich off his plan, so the 6-foot-5 quarterback moved to his next read and saw RB Cadillac Williams open in the left flat.
Just as Leftwich began to release the ball, DT Kyle Williams grabbed his feet, throwing off his motion and causing the ball to sail over his tailback and right to FS Donte Whitner. Whitner ran 76 yards untouched for a Buffalo touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 6:16 left in the first quarter.
"I was going to Kellen, and then I had to move to my left and I was finding my checkdown," he said. "It just so happened as I went to turn and throw to my left, the guy grabbed both of my feet. I was trying to grab (the ball) back. That's why the throw went so high. I was just trying to grab it, eat it and take a sack. But I couldn't hold on to it and it got away from me.
"When it left, I just said, 'Oh Lord.' Because I saw the guy behind Cadillac. That's something you can't have. We can't have that - not just a turnover, but a turnover that gives those guys points."
Unfortunately for Leftwich, another interception followed on the next drive. On third and 10 from Buffalo's 43, Leftwich drilled a pass deep over the middle to rookie WR Sammy Stroughter. The ball popped loose as Stroughter hit the ground and was scooped up by SS Bryan Scott.
Though replays seemed to show the ball hitting the ground as Scott grabbed it, the play was upheld after a Buccaneer challenge and eventually led to a 31-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead.
"We've got to eliminate the turnovers, which we did in the second half," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "We've just got to get better starting the games and better finishing games."
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Their chances all but gone, a desperation heave by Byron Leftwich gave the Bucs a glimmer of hope with just more than five minutes left. On fourth and 10 from Buffalo's 43, Leftwich lined up in the shotgun, took the snap and lofted a pass down the left sideline. Bucs WR Maurice Stovall had a step on CB Reggie Corner and cradled the perfectly thrown ball for a 38-yard gain to the 5.
"Every time you just have to believe the ball is coming to you," said Stovall, who finished with six catches for 80 yards. "It was a great call by our coaches, a good throw by Leftwich - he had great placement on that - and we had good protection up front. I just focused on the ball and tried not to get distracted by the lights and the crowd noise."
After Stovall did his part, Cadillac Williams lost a yard and two passes fell incomplete. But on fourth and goal from the 6, Leftwich led TE Jerramy Stevens breaking free over the middle and Stevens corralled the pass with one outstretched hand for the score. Just like that, the Bucs had life, but a two-point conversion attempt failed and the door began to shut again on their hopes.