- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

TAMPA, Fla. — A pair of first-quarter mistakes doomed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to an early start to their offseason.

The NFC South champions surrendered two early touchdowns off turnovers en route to a 17-10 loss to the Washington Redskins in a wild-card game yesterday at Raymond James Stadium.

“Our first ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted, and it was a big play,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. “Then we put together a nice drive and got inside the 35, and we had a fumble, and before you know it we were down 14-0. Those have not been the kind of games that have really spelled out success for us.”

The errors prevented Tampa Bay from capitalizing on a strong defensive performance in its first playoff game since winning Super Bowl XXXVII three seasons ago. The Bucs limited Washington to 120 total yards, including only 25 net yards passing, and held ailing running back Clinton Portis to 53 yards.

It was a decidedly different game for Tampa Bay than the teams’ Week 10 meeting. The Bucs rallied for a one-point victory in that shootout, during which neither vaunted defense lived up to its stout reputation.

“We didn’t win,” linebacker Derrick Brooks said. “I said that back in November when we beat them 36-35. Everyone said, ‘You guys gave up over 500 yards offense,’ and I said, ‘No, we won.’ At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. They found a way to win, and we didn’t.”

The Bucs’ woes began on their second possession. Quarterback Chris Simms tried to zip a pass to the left side, but defensive tackle Joe Salave’a tipped it near the line. The deflection landed in linebacker LaVar Arrington’s hands, and he brought it back to the Tampa Bay 6. On the next play, Portis rumbled into the end zone.

Tampa Bay appeared to shrug off the turnover, promptly beginning a march into Washington territory. The Bucs made it to the 34 before linebacker Marcus Washington jarred the ball loose from running back Carnell Williams.

Washington picked up the fumble, then fumbled himself before safety Sean Taylor grabbed the loose ball and ran 51 yards for the touchdown to put the Redskins up 14-0.

“Not the spot you want to be in,” Simms said.

Simms managed to rebound from the early hiccup in his first career playoff start despite throwing another interception with less than a minute left to clinch the loss. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 198 yards and moved the Bucs into Washington territory five times.

Two of the drives came in the fourth quarter, but the Bucs came up empty.

After fullback Mike Alstott was stuffed on third-and-1 at the Washington 19, Simms’ play-action pass to Jameel Cook fell incomplete.

The Bucs almost pulled even with 2:55 left when wide receiver Edell Shepherd appeared to haul in a 35-yard touchdown catch from Simms on third down. Officials ruled it incomplete because the ball was jarred loose as he hit the ground, and the replay booth did not overturn the call.

A play later, Simms overthrew Shepherd on the same corner-go route, and Tampa Bay never had another play in Washington territory.

“It’s just a sad situation if you’re Jon Gruden right now,” Gruden said of the third-down play. “I thought that was a big play in the game, and hopefully it would have sparked us to a victory.”

Still, it wasn’t the offense’s stumbles that prevented the Bucs from playing Chicago in next week’s division playoffs. It was the early miscues that essentially doomed Tampa Bay’s playoff exit.

“The thing we stressed the most is the thing we could not get over, and that was the turnover margin,” Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. “[We] held them in yards, had more yards than them. Everything statistically went our way except the turnover margin.”

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