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HOUSTON - As it turns out, the Bucs never intended to play Jeff Garcia on Sunday.
Coach Jon Gruden admitted that, despite his vague statements about Garcia's availability the past two weeks, the expectation from the outset was that he would miss two games. The Bucs expect him to play at home Sunday against the Falcons.
Gruden seemed determined to let the back injury take its course, likely because the Bucs prefer to have Garcia healthy heading into the postseason. Still, Garcia wasn't going to merely sit back and quietly give way for the second week in a row.
"As much as it was difficult early in the week when I was trying to battle Coach about (getting) back out there," Garcia said, "he was pretty straightforward in the sense of, 'See how you feel, but most likely not.'"
Garcia said he has regained his full range of motion, which had been limited, and the pain, for the most part, has subsided.
HILLIARD HURT, TOO: Gruden seemed concerned about the status of receiver Ike Hilliard, who left the game in the first quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return. Hilliard was not available for comment, but Gruden seemed worried.
"We lost Ike Hilliard, which really compromised us," Gruden said. "He is a clutch, go-to guy for us, on third downs especially. We're searching right now to find out his availability for next week."
The loss of Hilliard was a factor in the Bucs' dreadful 3-for-13 performance on third down. He has been their most reliable receiver in third-down situations.
"There's a number of plays we call (on third down) when he's in the game, and when he's not in the game, we don't use those plays," receiver Joey Galloway said of Hilliard.
BACKDOOR ROUTE: The Bucs can clinch the NFC South title tonight if the Falcons defeat the Saints in Atlanta.
"Go Chris Redman," cornerback Ronde Barber said, referring to the Atlanta quarterback. "We'll take it how it comes. We have next week against Atlanta to take care of it ourselves if it doesn't happen."
The Panthers were eliminated from contention for the division crown with their loss to Jacksonville on Sunday.
Only the Saints (5-7) remain mathematically alive. But they would have to finish with a better record than Tampa Bay to win the division because the Bucs have two wins over them.
The Bucs are in contention for any seeding in the NFC. But with Dallas, Green Bay and Seattle winning Sunday, the odds are getting slimmer that Tampa Bay will be slotted higher than No. 4.
GRAHAM, AGAIN: Running back Earnest Graham surpassed 100 total yards for the fourth time in Tampa Bay's past five games. He finished with 106 total yards - 61 rushing and 45 receiving.
And he has scored a rushing touchdown in five straight games, tying a team mark shared by Reggie Cobb, Gary Anderson and Errict Rhett.
Graham praised his blockers, adding: "I'm just doing what I do, as is everybody else on this team."
BUCS BITS: Running back Michael Bennett was annoyed by his continued lack of playing time, appearing just once in Sunday's game in a limited role. "One decoy route, the whole game," he said. ...Michael Clayton had an expanded role even before Hilliard's injury, catching four passes for 39 yards.
STREAK ENDS: Texans right guard Chester Pitts' streak of 770 consecutive plays ended when he was shaken up in the third quarter and missed two plays.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.