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Super Bowl XLIX hangover: 5 Buccaneers games that came down to 1 play

Patriots safety Malcolm Butler intercepts a pass intended for Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette to clinch New England's 28-24 Super Bowl XLIX comeback victory. Before the game, the Seahawks were 18-0 when leading by at least 10 points at end of the third quarter over past three seasons. [Associated Press]
Patriots safety Malcolm Butler intercepts a pass intended for Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette to clinch New England's 28-24 Super Bowl XLIX comeback victory. Before the game, the Seahawks were 18-0 when leading by at least 10 points at end of the third quarter over past three seasons. [Associated Press]
Published Feb. 16, 2015

Americans might not agree on much, but we've achieved consensus on at least two things over the past 240 years: 1.) The Revolutionary War was a pretty good idea, and 2.) The Seattle Seahawks should have run the ball with Marshawn Lynch from the 1-yard line in the final moments of Super Bowl XLIX.

The stunning conclusion comprised the very best things about football: high-stakes drama, game-swerving twists and unexpected heroes. And it comprised the worst: soul-crushing disappointment, season-defining mistakes and convenient scapegoats.

For as much as the Seahawks' decision to throw on 2nd and goal has been met with derision, the play had a chance. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler simply made a great play and beat receiver Ricardo Lockette to the ball.

The thing about the INT is Seattle got what it wanted with play-call. Unbelievable break on the ball by Butler. pic.twitter.com/zNEfTn8NfZ

As the prescient Tony D'Amato told his players in Any Given Sunday:

"In either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early, and you don't quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, you don't quite catch it."

That one-half step and one-half second dramatically shifted the narratives about the careers of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick. They were a mere 26 seconds away from failure. Now, their legacies have been reaffirmed.

Over time, people will forget about the gruesome arm injury that Seahawks nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane suffered after intercepting Brady in the first quarter. Brady relentlessly targeted his replacement, Tharold Simon, the rest of the night, completing seven of the 11 passes that he threw in his direction, including the game-winning touchdown to Julian Edelman with 2:02 left in the game.

People will forget, too, about the concussion that knocked defensive end Cliff Avril, one of the NFL's most productive pass rushers, out of the game. After he exited late in the third quarter, Brady completed 15 of his final 19 passes, two of which went for touchdowns.

Here's what they will remember: four, the number of Super Bowls that Brady and Belichick have won together, which ties Brady with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most by a quarterback and ties Belichick with Chuck Noll for most by a coach.

All because Malcolm Butler got to the ball before Ricardo Lockette.

On every team and in every season, there are single — and sometimes random — events that determine who wins and who loses, who makes the playoffs and who misses out. As dreadful as the Buccaneers 2014 season was, it could be boiled down to a handful of such plays. This was, after all, a team that lost eight games by 6 points or less.

Of course it's revisionist history and you can argue that 2-14 teams are 2-14 because they make more bad decisions and more mistakes than other teams. But in a year in which the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers reached the playoffs with only seven wins, if a few plays work in the Bucs' favor instead of against them, the conversation in Tampa Bay this spring might have been about the 21st pick in the NFL Draft rather than the first pick.

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Here are five plays from this season that the Bucs would like to have back. If all of them go the Bucs' way, maybe the Saints don't rally in Week 17 for 16 fourth-quarter points against backup players:

Game: vs. Carolina Panthers, Week 1

Situation: Buccaneers trail 17-14, Panthers ball, 3rd and 9 at Carolina 21-yard line, 1:52 remaining in fourth quarter

It seemed as though the Buccaneers caught a break when the Panthers decided to start backup quarterback Derek Anderson over Cam Newton, who suffered a rib injury during the Panthers' third preseason game. But Anderson filled in capably, picking apart the Bucs defense and leading the Panthers to a 17-0 fourth-quarter lead.

The Bucs offense was equally ineffective, gaining only 136 total yards through three quarters, 54 of which came on a first-quarter run by fullback Jorvorskie Lane. Josh McCown, Lovie Smith's hand-picked quarterback, threw two interceptions during his first three quarters as a Buccaneer after throwing only one in eight games as a Bear in 2013. Things finally started clicking for McCown in the fourth, however, as he completed 12 of his first 17 passes and threw two touchdowns to cut the Panthers lead to 17-14.

When the Panthers took over with 2:06 remaining, the Bucs defense sought to force at least a three-and-out but nearly came up with a game-changing interception instead. After a false start penalty and two runs for a total of 6 yards, the Panthers elected to pass to try to clinch the game. In the face of a six-man rush, Anderson threw the ball as he was hit. The errant pass went through safety Dashon Goldson's hands and fell incomplete. Instead of the Buccaneers taking over inside Carolina territory with a chance to kick the tying field goal or score the game-winning touchdown, the Panthers punted. Running back Bobby Rainey lost a fumble on the first play of the next drive, and the Panthers went on to win the season opener 20-14.

• • •

Game: vs. St. Louis Rams, Week 2

Situation: Buccaneers trail 19-17, Buccaneers ball, 2nd and 10 at Tampa Bay 39, 0:20 remaining in fourth quarter

If you were to pick the opposite of the Seahawks' decision to pass from the 1-yard line, it might be the Bucs' third-quarter decision in Week 2 against the Rams to run on a 3rd and 7 from the 9-yard line and settle for a field goal try. It was the safest call on a football field since the NFL chose Paul McCartney for its Super Bowl halftime act in 2005. The decision backfired for the Bucs — who were leading 14-13 at the time — as the Rams blocked the kick.

The teams took turns kicking field goals in the fourth quarter, but when Greg Zuerlein put the Rams in front 19-17, the Bucs had only 38 seconds to answer. On the first play of the drive, McCown checked down to Rainey over the middle for a 19-yard gain. But because the Bucs were out of timeouts, McCown had to spike the ball to stop the clock.

To reach Patrick Murray's field goal range, McCown needed to hit a receiver deep down the sideline or deep over the middle and then spike the ball again. Mike Evans lined up in the slot, ran about 30 yards to an opening in the Rams' zone coverage and leapt to haul in McCown's throw. He took a lick from safety T.J. McDonald, and as he tried to get back to his feet, he crumpled. 11 seconds… 10… 9… 8… The Bucs offense frantically raced down the field to the 32-yard line to try to stop the clock, but the officials decided to stop play. Because Evans was injured and could not get off the field and because the Buccaneers were out of timeouts, the rules required that 10 seconds be run off the clock, effectively ending the game and preserving the Rams' 19-17 win.

• • •

Game: vs. Minnesota Vikings, Week 8

Situation: Buccaneers lead 13-10, Vikings ball, 1st and 10 at Minnesota 49, 0:46 remaining in fourth quarter

Before this play, Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater targeted Cordarrelle Patterson on seven of his previous 12 pass attempts. When Bridgewater looked his way again, Bucs cornerback Johnthan Banks jumped Patterson's hitch route and nearly intercepted the pass. The crestfallen Banks lay on the ground until teammate Mason Foster pulled him up to remind him there was another play to defend.

An interception would have sealed the game, and the Vikings made the most of their second chance, completing a 17-yard pass on the next play and kicking a game-tying field goal as the fourth quarter expired. The Buccaneers won the coin toss in overtime, but on their first play, Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr knocked the ball out of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins' hands, scooped it up and ran it back for a touchdown and the 19-13 win.

• • •

Game: vs. Cincinnati Bengals, Week 13

Situation: Buccaneers trail 14-13, Buccaneers ball, 2nd and 15 at Cincinnati 41, 0:32 remaining in fourth quarter

While the Buccaneers saw their share of yellow penalty flags (13 for 94 yards to the Bengals' 10 for 73 yards) on this afternoon, a red challenge flag proved to be the most costly one of all, as it wiped out a completion that would have put the Bucs in position for a game-winning field-goal try.

When McCown found Louis Murphy over the middle for a 21-yard gain, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis tossed the flag onto the field to get the officials' attention before the Bucs could get off another snap. He saw that the Bucs lined up an extra player, and while coaches aren't allowed to challenge plays inside the final two minutes of a half, the tactic gave him the opportunity to plead for a review. The officials ultimately overturned the call and sent the Bucs back to the 46-yard line for having 12 men on the field. Two McCown incompletions and a short pass later, the game was over.

• • •

Game: at Carolina Panthers, Week 15

Situation: Buccaneers trail 16-10, Panthers ball, 1st and 15 at Carolina 22, 14:55 remaining in fourth quarter

You could almost cut and paste the Week 1 scenario here. Anderson once again filled in for an injured Newton, he targeted tight end Greg Olsen early and often and the Bucs offense was sleep-inducing. Still, for a fleeting moment early in the fourth quarter, it seemed as though the defense had bailed out an offense that lost 11 yards on its first 12 plays of the second half.

On the Panthers' first possession of the period, Anderson tried to force a throw to Olsen through zone coverage. The pass deflected off linebacker Danny Lansanah's hands and then off Olsen's hands before linebacker Orie Lemon hauled it in. And while Lemon was celebrating, the officials penalized the Bucs 15 yards because defensive end Larry English hit the side of Anderson's helmet just after he released the ball.

Instead of the Buccaneers taking over at the Carolina 31, the Panthers' drive continued and eventually ended with a field goal that put them up 19-10.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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