Tampa Bay’s West Coast woes continued in a San Francisco contest in which head coach Jon Gruden chose to rest most of his starters and play a significant amount of backups in the second half once the Buccaneers built a 13-7 halftime lead. But the end result in a sloppy affair was a 21-19 loss to the 49ers.

The Bucs, who clinched the NFC South division title and a home playoff game last week against Atlanta, have lost their last six contests on the West Coast, and fell to 9-6 on the year while the 49ers improved to 5-10 in 2007.

Trailing 21-13 late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs would rally behind Luke McCown, who replaced Jeff Garcia late in the second quarter and drove Tampa Bay 61 yards in 1:25 to score a potential game-tying touchdown on a 24-yard strike to tight end Jerramy Stevens, who had four catches for 73 yards and scored twice, with 1:31 left in regulation. But McCown’s two-point conversion pass to Michael Clayton was ruled incomplete because the Tampa Bay wide receiver had one foot out of the back of the end zone as he hauled in the catch.

Matt Bryant’s onside kick attempt sailed out of bounds, ending Tampa Bay’s chances of recording an elusive victory in San Francisco where the Bucs are 1-10 all-time with their lone win coming in 1980.

Rookie Shaun Hill is 3-0 as the 49ers starter and was 11-of-24 for 123 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. 49ers running back Frank Gore eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season and had 89 yards on 21 carries while also hauling in four catches for 43 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown.
Meanwhile, Earnest Graham was held in check for the Buccaneers with just 21 yards on nine carries as San Francisco’s defensive line dominated the Bucs upfront, recording four sacks and stuffing Tampa Bay’s ground game that was without fullback B.J. Askew for a second straight week due to an ankle sprain.

Tampa Bay out-gained San Francisco 434-213 yards and held almost a 10-minute time of possession advantage, but had to settle for two first quarter field goals and had two costly turnovers in a game that was reminiscent of the Bucs’ last West Coast trip, a 21-6 loss at Seattle in the 2007 season opener.

While the loss didn’t do anything but solidify Tampa Bay’s position as the fourth playoff seed in the NFC, the Bucs may have lost reserve wide receiver and special teams ace Maurice Stovall for the season with what could be a fractured right forearm.

Garcia, who was a three-time Pro Bowler for the 49ers several years ago, was booed by the San Francisco fans as he entered the game at the 13:13 mark in the first quarter, but that seemed to fuel him as he went 5-of-6 for 51 yards on Tampa Bay’s initial drive, which stalled at the 17-yard line. Tight end Alex Smith had three catches for 19 yards, but dropped a very catchable pass inside the 20-yard line that served as Garcia’s lone incompletion on the drive. The big play on the series was Ike Hilliard’s 26-yard catch-and-run on third-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 37. Bryant’s 34-yard field goal with 8:09 left in the first quarter gave Tampa Bay an early 3-0 lead.

The Bucs’ quest for a touchdown on their second drive was once again stymied by San Francisco. Garcia remained hot, hitting Clayton with a 25-yard pass and Smith with a 32-yard strike down to the San Francisco 4-yard line. But after a 1-yard run by Graham, Garcia fumbled the snap on second down and threw an incompletion on third down, prompting Tampa Bay to half to settle for a field goal. Bryant’s 22-yard field goal with 2:36 remaining in the first quarter increased the Bucs’ lead to 6-0.

On the first play of the second quarter, San Francisco would take the lead with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Hill to Darrell Jackson, who beat Brian Kelly and Jermaine Phillips in zone coverage. The 49ers’ drive covered 72 yards in seven plays and was keyed by three Gore runs totaling 37 yards. With 14:56 left in the second quarter, San Francisco led 7-6.

At the 12:58 mark of the second quarter, 49ers defender Keith Lewis tackled Micheal Spurlock on a punt return and forced a fumble that was recovered by San Francisco. However, Gruden challenged the play and instant replay confirmed that Spurlock’s knee was down before the ball came loose. Tampa Bay took possession at its own 19-yard line. The Bucs’ drive

Stovall injured right forearm and was carted off with 10:55 left in the second quarter.

Tampa Bay created the game’s first turnover when 49ers tight end Vernon Davis fumbled after being hit by Phillips following a 15-yard gain. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud recovered for the Bucs at the San Francisco 36. On third-and-10 from the San Francisco 36, Garcia found Michael Pittman for a 12-yard gain down to the 24. On the next play, Garcia rolled to his right and found Stevens getting deep on linebacker Parys Harrelson for a 24-yard touchdown. With 3:49 left in the second quarter, Tampa Bay was back on top 13-7.

McCown replaced Garcia after that score just before halftime. Garcia finished the day 12-of-21 for 196 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions while McCown’s day ended with him getting 18-of-32 for 185 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

The Bucs got their second turnover just before halftime when Kelly picked off Hill at the San Francisco 43. However, Tampa Bay couldn’t get a first down and turned the ball over on downs just before the end of the second quarter.

Tight end Delany Walker recovered an onside kick to start the second half for San Francisco at its 43-yard line. But after picking up a first down, San Francisco was forced to punt when its drive stalled at the Tampa Bay 36.

San Francisco was able to record another turnover at the 10:57 mark in the third quarter as McCown scrambled and was sacked by rookie middle linebacker Patrick Willis, who forced a fumble on the play, at the Tampa Bay 8. Safety Roman Harper recovered at the 14-yard line. Willis, a Pro Bowler, led the 49ers with 20 tackles and finished the game with two sacks.

On second-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 12, rookie defensive end Gaines Adams came in and drilled Hill in the ribs, knocking him out of the game, but also drawing a roughing the passer penalty, which resulted in a first down at the 6-yard line. Hill missed a play, but returned to throw a 5-yard touchdown to Davis on second-and-goal from the 5. Hill beat linebacker Derrick Brooks, Ruud and Phillips in zone coverage for the score. With 9:30 left in the third quarter, San Francisco reclaimed the lead, 14-13.

The Bucs dodged another turnover when Phillip Buchanon fumbled a punt return in Tampa Bay territory, but San Francisco long snapper Brian Jennings was flagged for being ineligibly downfield before the kick. Tampa Bay avoided another turnover as Smith appeared to have fumbled after picking up a first down, but instant replay confirmed the ruling on the field was that Smith’s elbow was down prior to the fumble, despite a challenge from San Francisco.

Smith finally gave San Francisco its second turnover as he let a pass go through his hands at the 49ers 23-yard line and into the waiting arms of cornerback Nate Clements, who returned the pick 62 yards down to the Tampa Bay 23. On the next play, Gore hauled in a pass from Hill, eluded Quincy Black and raced 23 yards for the score. With 14:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, San Francisco led 21-13.

Tampa Bay tried to get back in the game behind a wave of backups, and almost scored a touchdown with 5:20 remaining in the fourth quarter as Clayton almost made a sensational, one-handed catch in the end zone on fourth-and-6 from the San Francisco 26. But 49ers safety Dashon Goldson managed to get a hand in and break up the pass at the last second to turn away Tampa Bay on downs.

Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton caught Luke McCown’s two-point conversion pass following a 24-yard touchdown catch by tight end Jerramy Stevens with 1:20 left. The only problem was that Clayton’s left foot was out of bounds in the back of the end zone as he hauled in the catch. Instead of tying the game at 21-21, the 49ers were still ahead 21-19. Matt Bryant’s onside kickoff went out of bounds, sealing San Francisco’s victory.

Tampa Bay reserve tight end Jerramy Stevens may replace starter Alex Smith with the game he had today. Stevens caught four passes for 73 yards (18.3 avg.), including two touchdowns, while Smith hauled in a season-high six catches for 79 yards. But Smith dropped a pass inside the San Francisco 20-yard line in the first quarter and then had a pass bounce off his hands in the fourth quarter that was intercepted by cornerback Nate Clememts and returned 62 yards to the Tampa Bay 23. The 49ers would score a touchdown on the next play to increase their lead to 21-13.

Stevens, who came to the Bucs with questionable hands that he displayed in Seattle, has proved to be a more sure-handed receiver down the stretch for Tampa Bay than Smith has. While his run blocking must continue to improve, Stevens deserves to start and has earned this week’s PewterReport.com Pewter Player of the Game. Stevens and Smith are both tied for second on the team with three touchdown catches.

• Bucs wide receiver Joey Galloway became the first player in Tampa Bay history to go over the 1,000-yard mark for three consecutive seasons and to compile three 1,000-yard seasons during his Buccaneers career with a 29-yard pass play in the second quarter. Galloway entered the game with 56 catches for 985 yards and six touchdowns, and had one catch for 29 yards, Galloway now has 57 receptions for 1,014 yards on the season. Only two other receivers in Tampa Bay history have compiled two 1,000-yard campaigns – Keyshawn Johnson (2001, 2002) and Kevin House (1981, 1984). Galloway now has six 1,000-yard seasons, including three with Seattle.

• Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant made both of his field goals at San Francisco and is now 25-of-30 on the season. His 83.3 field goal percentage is the best in team history.

• Running back Earnest Graham rushed for just 21 yards on nine carries against a stout San Francisco defense. Graham now has 898 yards rushing and needs 102 yards on the ground to go over the 1,000-yard mark n the season.

• Tampa Bay entered the San Francisco game with the largest turnaround turnover ratio. Last year, the Bucs had a minus-12 turnover ratio and came into Sunday with a plus-14 mark.

• The Bucs headed into Week 16 with 101 points off turnovers this year, which ranks second in the NFL. Tampa Bay added another seven points today

• The New York Giants (9-5) clinched an NFC Wild Card playoff berth with their 38-21 win at Buffalo (7-8) on Sunday.

• New Orleans (8-7) was nearly eliminated from Wild Card playoff contention on Sunday after a 38-23 home loss to Philadelphia (7-8). The Saints basically have to win next week and hope that Minnesota loses on Sunday night and in Week 17 and that Washington beats Minnesota on Sunday night and loses in Week 17.

• The winner of the Washington (7-7) at Minnesota (8-6) contest on NBC’s Sunday Night Football is in the driver’s seat for the final Wild Card playoff berth in the NFC. In fact, Minnesota clinches it with a victory, while Washington clings to its playoff life with a win.

• Dallas (13-2) clinched homefield advantage in the NFC due to Green Bay’s 35-7 loss at Chicago on Sunday. The Packers have already clinched a first-round bye.

• Seattle (10-5) beat Baltimore on Sunday and has clinched the third playoff seed in the conference as the NFC West champion.

Tampa Bay defensive tackle Jovan Haye recorded his sixth sack of the season against San Francisco, which is a career high. Haye’s six sacks are tied for second on the team with rookie defensive end Gaines Adams. … Jeremiah Trotter saw his first action on defense as a Buccaneer in the second half, replacing Barrett Ruud at middle linebacker. Trotter finished with four tackles. Ruud led the Bucs with six tackles and recovered his third fumble of the season. … Tampa Bay strong safety Jermaine Phillips forced his third fumble of the year on Sunday. … Bucs rookie Quincy Black replaced Cato June at strongside linebacker in the third quarter and finished with three tackles. … Rookie Adam Hayward replaced Derrick Brooks in the third quarter and recorded two stops. … Defensive tackle Ryan Sims recorded his first sack with the Buccaneers and had two tackles. … Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly recorded his second interception of the season and his 22nd career INT against the 49ers.

Starting offense:

WR Joey Galloway
LT Donald Penn
LG Arron Sears
C John Wade
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
TE Alex Smith
WR Michael Clayton
FB Byron Storer
RB Earnest Graham

Starting defense:
LE Kevin Carter
UT Jovan Haye
NT Chris Hovan
RE Gaines Adams
WLB Derrick Brooks
MLB Barrett Ruud
SLB Cato June
LCB Phillip Buchanon
FS Tanard Jackson
SS Jermaine Phillips
RCB Ronde Barber

Starting specialists:
K Matt Bryant
P Josh Bidwell
LS Andrew Economos

FB B.J. Askew, RB Kenneth Darby, LB Ryan Nece, DE Patrick Chukwurah, DE Greg Peterson, G Dan Buenning, TE Keith Heinrich and QB Bruce Gradkowski (emergency quarterback).

49ERS INACTIVES: WR LeRon McCoy, CB Shawntae Spencer, OT Damane Duckett, DL Atiyyah Ellison, CB Marcus Hudson, RB Michael Robinson, WR Bryan Gilmore and QB Trent Dilfer (emergency quarterback).

Fullback B.J. Askew (ankle) and defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (hamstring) did not make the trip to San Francisco and were inactive. Bucs linebacker Ryan Nece was a late scratch due to injury as well. Wide receiver Maurice Stovall injured right forearm and was carted off with 10:55 left in the second quarter. Stovall had his arm in an air cast and it could possibly be fractured. No other serious injuries were reported, although defensive end Greg White left the game with a neck-shoulder injury and wide receiver Joey Galloway banged up his shoulder in limited duty.

The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. 49ers game at Monster Park was 68,193. The kickoff temperature was 51 degrees with 65 percent humidity under sunny skies.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6) attempt to go undefeated in the NFC South as they host the Carolina Panthers (6-9) in the 2007 regular season finale at Raymond James Stadium next Sunday, December 30. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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