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Bucs' lament: 'We never put them away'

Tampa Bay blows an 11-point lead in the final minutes thanks in part to uncharacteristic errors on defense.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000


TAMPA -- For three quarters, the Bucs had the Jets right where they wanted them.

Unable to convert on third down.

Unable to put the ball in the end zone.

Unable to take advantage of two turnovers by the Bucs offense.

Heck, midway through the fourth quarter, the Jets had just two field goals and were trailing 17-6. Tampa Bay, with arguably one of the best defenses in the league, was looking pretty.

Then came what will go down in team history as one of the more devastating defensive letdowns.

Looking pretty became being ugly as the Jets scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes.

"Prior to the 1:48 mark of the game, they had two field goals, so that's pretty good," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "But you've got to finish, and we didn't finish. We didn't play the last 1:48."

Added defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who entered the game as the NFC's sacks leader but was kept away from the Jets quarterbacks: "We never put them away. At no point did I think we were going to lose this game. It's uncharacteristic of this ball club. We always put people away, and we're still searching for the killer instinct. We'll learn from it."

In the film room today, the defense will learn that Jets running back Curtis Martin hit a season-high of 5 yards a carry and finished with 90 yards.

"They made some big plays," defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said. "We're built on being fundamentally sound in the fourth quarter and once we get a lead, we usually don't give it up. Today, we just weren't on our P's and Q's in the fourth quarter. We played hard, but you have to tip your hats to them, they made some plays."

They will learn that despite keeping quarterback Vinny Testaverde relatively locked up and intercepting him three times, they allowed the former Buc to go 8-for-9 for 60 yards including a 6-yard touchdown pass to Martin in a critical fourth-quarter drive.

"It's been a long time since we've lost a game like that going into the fourth quarter when you have the lead and the ball," coach Tony Dungy said. "We did some uncharacteristic things today, a lot of penalties, some mistakes that hurt us, some turnovers that we haven't had all year and when you do that against a good team, it's tough to win."

Added safety John Lynch: "We didn't play like we normally played, and we gave them opportunity after opportunity to hang in the game. We had an opportunity to finish them and we didn't, and we knew that this was a team that if we let hang in, they had success coming back. It's a shame. We should have won this game."

Despite entering the game as the NFL's leaders in sacks, the defense was able to get to Testaverde just once.

"I couldn't tell you what happened," defensive end Marcus Jones said. "It really wasn't so much their offensive line. It really wasn't that. They left a lot of people in but we're supposed to capitalize on that anyway. We just didn't bring our "A' game here today, and we just didn't take advantage of their mistakes."

And just before the lights come on, the Bucs defense, which prides itself on containing the opposition and making every tackle, will look back at how Martin avoided both Damien Robinson and Derrick Brooks in the flat to convert a 6-yard touchdown that brought the Jets within three, 17-14 after the two-point conversion.

Brooks, an All-Pro linebacker and wizard at tackling, took full responsibility.

"No excuses, no explanations," Brooks said. "We were in position, myself included, to make plays. Obviously, I didn't make the tackle out in the flat. It's something I do 99 times out of 100, but I didn't do it.

"I left the field p-----. It's something we don't do. We finish teams off in the fourth quarter and today, for some reason, we didn't. I'm not going to make any excuses. It's the bottom line. At the same time, it's not the end of the world."

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