TAMPA, Fla. — Eleven months ago, the Ravens left Raymond James Stadium with a firm grip around the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Last night, the defending Super Bowl champions departed empty-handed and felt their playoff chances begin to slip almost out of their grasp.
Wincing from a series of pivotal mistakes, the Ravens clumsily folded late to the Tampa Buccaneers, 22-10, before 65,619.The Ravens (9-6) still can secure a playoff berth today if Seattle loses at San Diego. If the Seahawks (7-7) win today, the Ravens can clinch next week with a win against Minnesota or a Seattle loss to Kansas City.
The Buccaneers (9-6), who improved to 10-0 at Raymond James in December, moved a step closer to the playoffs, needing a loss or tie by Atlanta today to clinch a berth.
"The scary thing -- what makes you wonder -- are we a playoff-caliber team?" tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "I really truly hope Seattle wins. I want it to be riding on Monday night [Jan. 7 against Minnesota at PSINet Stadium.]"
The memories of last January's title celebration here will now be tempered with thoughts of frustration.
Trailing 16-10 with two minutes left, the Ravens' last gasp at a game-winning drive stalled on Dexter Jackson's sack off a safety blitz and died when quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a 5-yard completion on fourth-and-10.
"The mental errors were just too much to overcome," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
Tampa Bay then sealed the game on Mike Alstott's 32-yard touchdown run with 1:35 left, staking the Buccaneers to a 22-10 lead. The game fittingly ended on a Ravens miscue as the ensuing kickoff was fielded by offensive lineman Orlando Bobo, who fumbled with 1:27 remaining.
The Buccaneers ran out the clock to hand the Ravens' their second loss in December in Billick's three-year tenure and basically ended the Ravens' chances at playing host to a first-round playoff game.
"We outplayed the defending Super Bowl champions," said All-Pro defensive lineman Warren Sapp, who played a part in Tampa Bay's five sacks of Grbac, "and put on a great show in our house."
A solid defensive effort by the Ravens was wasted as special teams and the offense came up lacking. The Ravens finished with three turnovers, a blocked punt and eight penalties for 65 yards.
All 13 of the Buccaneers' second-quarter points were helped by Ravens' mistakes, and the visitors' fourth-quarter comeback was stymied by two penalties on left guard Edwin Mulitalo on two separate drives.
Mulitalo's biggest mishap came a minute into the fourth quarter with the Ravens at Tampa Bay's 1-yard line and trailing 16-7. Mulitalo was called for a false start, moving the ball back to the Buccaneers' 6.
Grbac, who suffered bruised ribs and a strained groin while getting banged around in the first half, threw too high to 6-foot-5 Todd Heap in the back of the end zone, and the Ravens had to settle for Matt Stover's 24-yard field goal 1:34 into the fourth quarter to close the deficit to 16-10.
"Warren Sapp got me," Mulitalo said. "He kind of faked a hut and I was antsy. I didn't keep my poise down there."
Before those mistakes, the Ravens went ahead by marching downfield behind Grbac's most-composed effort of the night. He connected on four of his next five throws for 49 yards and capped off the drive by hitting receiver Travis Taylor in the right corner of the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown.
Taylor's first touchdown in nine games put the Ravens ahead, 7-3, a minute into the second quarter.
"The tight end is the primary receiver but I am the first receiver if the corners are in press coverage," Taylor said. "Elvis just made a great throw and I came down with it."
Two lapses on special teams -- including having a punt blocked -- and another costly interception by Grbac during a 6 1/2 -minute span paved the way to all of Tampa Bay's 13 points in the second quarter. The Buccaneers' last three scoring drives of the first half were 16, 17 and 1 yard.
Interference by the Ravens' Adalius Thomas on a fair catch led to a 16-yard scoring drive and a 38-yard field goal by newly signed Doug Brien, closing Tampa Bay to within 7-6 with 7:38 remaining in the second quarter.
On the next series, the Buccaneers' Todd Yoder beat long snapper Joe Maese up the middle to take the ball off Ravens punter Kyle Richardson's right foot. The seventh block of Richardson's five-year career set up Tampa Bay at the Ravens' 23-yard line.
After a meager 17 yards on five plays, Brien converted a 24-yard field goal with 3:58 left in the first half to budge the Buccaneers ahead, 9-7.
"The knee was a factor but I'm not making excuses," said Maese, who was listed as probable on the injury report. "I got my [butt] kicked."