Game 15: Bucs make the Ravens pay

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."

Grbac's troubles continued three plays after that blocked punt. Throwing a poor pass over the middle, Grbac was intercepted by linebacker Derrick Brooks, who was 7 yards in front of intended receiver Sharpe. Brooks returned the pick 53 yards and was stopped at the 1-yard line by Ravens running back Moe Williams.

One play later, Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson leaped over the pile, cracking the goal line despite a head-on hit by linebacker Ray Lewis. The first touchdown allowed by the Ravens in five quarters extended the Buccaneers' lead to 16-7 with 3:05 remaining in the second quarter.

"I decided I was throwing it when I should not have and he came off the back side and made a great play," said Grbac, who was 21-for-37 for 205 yards. "I should have just tucked the ball away or dumped it off to a back. We're still in the ballgame without that mistake."

The Ravens defense clamped down on Tampa Bay to open the second half, but their offense resurfaced at the end of the third quarter only to stall because of another slipup.

Brien sliced a 40-yard field-goal attempt wide right -- the 14th miss this season against the Ravens -- and the Ravens used big plays to fuel a 64-yard drive. They moved 63 yards on three consecutive plays -- receptions by Qadry Ismail and Travis Taylor along with a Terry Allen run -- to march to the Buccaneers' 3-yard line.

But Mulitalo's first penalty made the Ravens settle for the field goal and a 16-10 deficit.

On the next Ravens' possession, they started moving from their 2-yard line but that series died when Mulitalo was called for holding. After the defense held Tampa Bay to three-and-out, the Ravens got the ball back at their own 12 with 2:56 left in the game.

Completing three of his first four passes on the drive, Grbac connected with Sharpe, who got out of bounds at the 31-yard to stop the clock with 2:04 left.

But Grbac was sacked by Dexter Jackson on a safety blitz on third-and-five. On fourth-and-10, Grbac committed his most costly miscue by throwing just a 6-yard pass to Qadry Ismail, who was immediately tackled by Brooks to end their last chance at a game-winning drive.

Tampa Bay put the game away on the next possession on Alstott's 32-yard touchdown run with 1:35 left, staking the Buccaneers to a 22-10 lead.

"Fortunately, we still have those playoff aspirations," Billick said. "That's what we'll focus on. We still have control of our own destiny as long as we still got a shot that's what you focus on. We can't hang our heads. We're not out of it yet."

Meanwhile Sapp was literally glowing.

"This team is in the playoffs and we expect to do some damage because every team up there, we can play with," the Buccaneer said. "Our backs were against the wall and we came out and performed like playoff teams do in December."