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Bucs stumble backward into playoffs Tampa routed by Jets, 31-0, hours before clinching 1st postseason in 15 years; NFL WEEK 16


EAST RUTHERFORD, N. J. -- Confirmation would come later, well after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' dreadful, 31-0 loss to the New York Jets yesterday, hours after they had been exposed as too one-dimensional to present a serious postseason threat.

The Bucs are going to the playoffs this season, ending a tedious, 15-year drought. But in the wake of another Meadowlands nightmare, it seemed a moot point.

"I don't think it is ever a good day when you don't win, especially when you lose like this," said Bucs coach Tony Dungy. "But our goal is to get into the playoffs, and right now our goal is to win next week.

"If we can do that, then we have 10 wins, and that's a pretty good year."

The Bucs (9-6) had three chances to clinch that elusive playoff berth yesterday. But it wasn't until the Carolina Panthers lost to the Green Bay Packers late yesterday afternoon that Tampa Bay found the back door ajar, if not particularly inviting.

"Even if it comes down that we do get in today and back in, it doesn't make us feel any better," Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer said.

The Jets (9-6) improved their playoff odds with their first shutout since 1993 -- their last victory in December, while the Bucs absorbed their 10th loss in 11 tries in the shadow of the Big Apple.

One dimensional? When the Bucs couldn't handle the gusting, 20 mph winds, the blitz-crazy Jets defense or the loss of their fullback, their offense fell completely apart.

Dilfer, playing on a tender right ankle he sprained a week ago, suffered through the worst game of his four-year career. He completed just two of 15 passes for 38 yards before giving way to backup Steve Walsh in the third quarter.

He completed the same number of passes to much-maligned Jets cornerback Otis Smith, who returned two interceptions for 45- and 51-yard touchdowns in a tumultuous second quarter.

"They blitzed us and were determined to make us make plays up the field, and we couldn't do that," Dungy said. "We couldn't burn the blitz."

To their credit, the Bucs did not travel the alibi route. They did not lean on the crutch that fullback Mike Alstott was inactive with a thigh bruise, or that the wind played havoc with their kicking game.

"When you lose a Pro Bowler, it hurts the offense," Dilfer said of Alstott, one of seven Bucs named to the Pro Bowl this week. "But we're not going to use that excuse."

There was no excuse, of course, for an offense that was 0-for-13 on third down, had 111 total yards, and hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 14. But the debacle wasn't all offense, either.

Sean Landeta, the Towson State punter the Bucs signed to replace injured Tommy Barnhardt after Week 6, had a brutal first quarter kicking into the stiff wind. His first three punts traveled distances of 22, 31 and 29 yards. His fourth was blocked when Tony Bouie let the Jets' Raymond Austin slip in from the left side.

"The best one I hit was blocked," said Landeta, who nevertheless got off a club-record 74-yard punt -- with the wind -- in the third quarter. "A day like this is tough."

The Bucs' defense kept them in the game to a point, but they were never able to capitalize on a revamped Jets offensive line.

Rookie Kerry Jenkins started at left tackle for the Jets, alongside rookie left guard Lamont Burns. And still the Bucs, who have 41 sacks this season, never reached quarterback Neil O'Donnell (14-for-22 for 112 yards).

When another rookie, Leon Johnson, returned the second-half kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown, the Jets were in cruise control at 24-0.

Even though they are tied with New England and Miami at 9-6 for the AFC East lead, the Jets must win at Detroit next week to earn a playoff bid.

As incredible as it seems, the Bucs can still earn a home playoff game with a victory over the Chicago Bears. Short of that, they'll travel to Minnesota to play the shaky Vikings in the wild-card round.

"The bottom line is, we have to play better," Tampa Bay linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "I'm not looking to go to the playoffs and go home after the first week. I want to play a while. This team is capable of doing that."

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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