FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The Bucs had escaped another shot by Tom Brady. They had gotten the quarterback off the field and - they hoped - themselves back in the game.
After scoring a touchdown on their first possession, the Patriots had come up short for the fourth consecutive time. "We're feeling pretty good there because we'd settled down and settled in," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. But as the Patriots lined up to punt on fourth and 13 from their 47 with 4:39 left in the second quarter, that feeling quickly vanished, giving way to one of frustration.
Linebacker Ryan Nece, the special teams captain, was called for roughing the kicker. The result was a 15-yard penalty, first down and, worse, a momentum swing so decisive the Bucs never recovered.
The Patriots went on to march the remaining 38 yards in six plays, capping the drive with a Brady touchdown pass to Tom Ashworth. Moments later, the New England defense - also energized by the turn of events - jarred the ball from Chris Simms, with Willie McGinest scooping up Mike Vrabel's forced fumble.
That set up another Brady touchdown pass, a 16-yard strike to David Givens with 27 seconds left in the first half.
That made the score 21-0, though it might as well have been twice that.
"When I look at (the roughing the kicker penalty), that's one that's going to dwell in my mind as a momentum-changing play," Nece said.
"You never know when that (momentum-changing) play is going to happen. But if you look at what happened after that flag, they got a lot of momentum and put points on the board. That's where the game got away from us."
Special teams loomed large again when Mark Jones' 81-yard punt return for a touchdown was negated by a holding penalty by Kalvin Pearson.
That would have trimmed New England's lead to 21-7 with 6:13 left in the third. "That's a heartbreaker right there," Nece said. "Then you look at my penalty, and it gives them a chance to get the ball back and put it in Brady's hands again. You don't want that. You don't want to beat yourself. Those are the types of plays where you beat yourself."
The penalty against Pearson was obvious. But the call against Nece was borderline, he said. The Bucs called for an all-out rush. Nece dived toward Josh Miller and grazed him with his shoulder while Miller completed his kicking motion and, thus, was more susceptible to injury.
Nece could have been flagged for running into the kicker, a 5-yard penalty that would not have resulted in a first down.
"I didn't feel like I hit him that hard to draw the flag," said Nece, who added he believed Miller added some dramatics to make his fall look worse. "That's a judgment call on the ref, and obviously, he felt like I deserved it.
"You have to go into the meetings and look everybody in the eye. And if you made a mistake, you have to suck it up. That's the nature of this game because of the pressure of the game. Obviously, I can come up with a lot of excuses to say I didn't do it, but film doesn't lie. So we'll look at the film and evaluate it from there."
But the Bucs will devote more time this week to analyzing why they were unable to stop Brady and the Patriots after the penalty. "If there's a blade of grass on the field for us to defend, we're going to defend it," linebacker Derrick Brooks said.
"One thing we can't control is how we get out there. But we can control what we do when we get out there."