The Buccaneers advanced to next week’s NFC title game in Philadelphia with a 31-6 victory, but really, it wasn’t that close. Tampa Bay led by 22 at halftime, and the only way the 49ers were going to come back this time was if someone locked the Buccaneers in their locker room and threw away the key.
``They beat us in every aspect of the game,’’ rookie cornerback Mike Rumph said. ``They came out with do-or-die attitude, and made the plays, and we didn’t. They are a really good team. We were not clicking like we should have been clicking.’’
There was no clicking but plenty of clanking.
Here was punter Bill LaFleur shanking a 14-yard punt from the Bucs’ 40. There was quarterback Jeff Garcia being intercepted three times and also losing a fumble.
Here was safety Tony Parrish picking up a 36-yard pass-interference penalty against Joe Jurevicius, setting the Buccaneers up for their second touchdown. There was Vinny Sutherland fumbling away the subsequent kickoff.
Here was Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson completing 15 of 31 passes for 196 yards, and connecting a total of eight times for 133 yards to Jurevicius and Keyshawn Johnson. There was Terrell Owens catching only four passes for 35 yards, not a Sharpie or pompon in sight - and no comments from him afterward, either.
Owens’ most notable moment came on the first play of the second half. He tried a one-handed catch of a Garcia pass, inadvertently bounced the ball of his knee, and could only watch as the ball landed in the waiting hands of Buccaneers cornerback Dwight Smith.
``Things just did not go our way from start to finish,’’ said backup offensive lineman Matt Willig, who took over at left tackle when starter Derrick Deese’s chronically-aching left ankle simply could not take any more pounding. ``The last thing we needed was to get behind the 8-ball."
Oh, yes, the injuries. As if the 49ers weren’t already dealing with a daunting enough task facing the NFL’s best defense, their own battered secondary took an early hit it could not afford.
With the game scoreless early, starting cornerback Ahmed Plummer was in on a tackle of Jurevicius and suffered a dislocated right shoulder that ended his day. The 49ers already were without starting cornerback Jason Webster, who missed his second consecutive game with an ankle sprain.
And in the second half, free safety Zack Bronson would leave as the result of soreness in his left foot, which he broke in October, sidelining him for most of the season. With the secondary depleted - Rashad Holman and Duane Hawthorne received plenty of unexpected playing time - the 49ers’ chances against the Bucs went from slim to nil. In the first half, the Bucs converted on 8 of 10 third-down chances.
``Defense is a real team proposition, probably more so than offense," defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. ``An offensive guy can make a tremendous play and break the game open. On defense, you’ve all got to be on the same page on every play or else you’re going to have a breakdown."
The Buccaneers, who had not scored so much as a touchdown in their previous three playoff games, scored four in the first half - two on runs by Mike Alstott, one on a catch by Jurevicius and another on a catch by former Oakland Raiders tight end Rickey Dudley.
It would have been even worse for the 49ers had Ronde Barber’s fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown not been called back because of a penalty.
``We turned the ball over way too many times, and we didn’t execute the game plan,’’ 49ers center Jeremy Newberry said. ``We wanted to pound the ball a bit, but we got behind early and were not able to do that. My hat’s off to them. They played a great game."
The 49ers’ offensive production was limited to two first-half field goals by rookie Jeff Chandler. The 49ers’ first possession of the game came after Holman’s interception at the Tampa Bay 40, but the offense responded by going three-and-out for the first of three times in the game.
Garcia, so effective against the Giants a week earlier, had a miserable 35.9 passer rating against Tampa Bay. He was ineffective when he left the pocket, was sacked four times, and did not run the ball even once after gaining 60 yards on the ground against the Giants.
``We just couldn’t get anything to go right, and that’s a credit to them,’’ Garcia said. ``Once we got down big at halftime, we completely got out of any sort of rhythm.’’
Of his team’s success at stopping Garcia, Bucs linebacker and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks said, ``I think it was a combination of rush, disciplined rushing lanes, good pursuit and staying with our guys downfield. He’s a guy who scrambles to throw the ball, and we’ve got prior experience playing against that. I think that helped us."
As for shutting down Owens, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said, ``This guy has seen a number of defenses, but we are something special. We had their man bracketed. T.O. wasn’t open. He was looking for places to go, and there wasn’t anywhere to go."
It was an apt description of the 49ers’ day. But to a man, they denied that the effort of rallying against the Giants left their tanks empty against the Bucs.
``We came down here ready to play," Plummer said. ``It just wasn’t our day. They made some plays. You’ve got to give credit to those guys."
Looking to the 49ers’ future, Plummer said, ``I’m not going to stop trying until we get that ring. That’s what it’s all about. And the more you play, the more that you taste it, the more hungry you get for it. I can speak for every man in this locker room, that it’s going to make us work even harder, a game like this."