Loss proves Bucs aren’t at elite level — yet

By any measure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have taken a giant step from last season under new head coach Greg Schiano. But Sunday afternoon, it just wasn’t quite big enough to fell the NFL’s reigning goliaths in their own backyard.

In a game that few gave the Bucs a serious chance to win, they carried an 11-point edge into the fourth quarter before caving under the weight of Eli Manning’s career-high 510-yard passing effort in a wild 41-34 shootout loss to the New York Giants.

If you didn’t see it unfold, you might not have believed the final scoreboard tally. It was a football game that wound up as a track meet, with the underdogs going strong around the final turn — only to get passed in a Manning blur at the finish line.

It certainly didn’t look like the Tampa Bay team that closed out 2011 with a 10-game losing streak and a 4-12 record. Heck, it didn’t even look the Bucs team that upset potent Carolina last week 16-10 with a conservative offensive style and a wilting defense that held the Panthers to 10 rushing yards.

This one was a last-man-standing, offensive free-for-all.

Quarterback Josh Freeman let passes rip downfield from the start, often into the hands of favorite target Vincent Jackson, who caught five passes for 128 yards and a touchdown.

And Buc fans watching on TV had to be doing double-takes when Freeman connected with Mike Williams on a 41-yard touchdown catch in the end zone to tie the score 34-34 with 1:58 left on the clock.

But in the end, the Giants — and Manning — were simply too much for the Bucs to handle after taking  leads of 20-6 in the second quarter and 27-13 at the half, courtesy of Eric Wright’s 60-yard return of an interception in the waning seconds of the second quarter.

“I thought Vincent did a great job running his routes,” Freeman said after the game. “We thought we’d have him singled up and have a couple of chances to make some plays — the way that he came down with that first one (a 29-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter) and a couple of other ones. And then there was Mike there toward the end with a couple of big catches for us. But ultimately, you play to win.”

Giant fans seemed to be getting worried that the Bucs would do just that. Boos cascaded from the stands as the Bucs dominated the early going, turning three Manning interceptions into 21 points. It looked as if the defending Super Bowl champions might well be on their way to an 0-2 start to 2012, and the last year’s doormats heading for 2-0.

Then came Manning’s fourth-quarter fireworks, wiping out a 27-16 Tampa Bay lead with a 25-point offensive onslaught.  After Lawrence Tyne’s fourth field goal of the day pulled the Giants to within eight points, Manning more than atoned for his sloppy first half.

First came a go-route strike to wide receiver Victor Cruz, who raced past venerable free safety Ronde Barber for an 80-yard, catch-and-run touchdown with 6:48 to play — finishing the day with 11 catches for 179 yards. Andre Brown bulled in for the two-point conversion, tying the score 27-all and getting previously disgruntled Giants fans on their feet and roaring.

Three minutes later, Manning followed with a 33-yard touchdown pass to tight end Martellus Bennett, who had let a score slip through his hands in the first half, for a 34-27 advantage that seemed to be the death knell for Tampa Bay.

The Freeman-to-Williams TD — with No. 19 leaping in the end zone to catch a deflected ball — changed all of that. But with 1:58 remaining, there was still plenty of time for Manning to play with. And he made the most of it, finding his other go-to receiver — Hakeem Nicks (10 catches for 199 yards) on a 50-yard gain. That helped set up Brown for a two-yard touchdown with 31 seconds to play.

Still, the Bucs didn’t go quietly. Freeman completed a 19-yarder to Jackson to the New York 45 and then found Williams deep on the left sideline for what looked like a 29-yard gain to the 16. But the completion was reversed on replay — with Williams ruled not have maintained possession as he was knocked out of bounds.

Instead of having a shot to send the game to OT, Freeman had to go back to work with 12 seconds left and his final pass was picked off by linebacker Michael Boley.

“They made plays,” Schiano said. “It’s a game of inches and they were able to make them and we were close, but we didn’t. We just have to do a better job all around, coaching and playing.”

Freeman completed 15 of 28 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns and the two interceptions. The first one he threw Sunday changed the direction of the game, following a non-call that had a major impact on the contest.

The Giants had just pulled to within 11 points late in the third quarter on Tynes’ third field goal, making it 27-16 with 44 seconds on the clock. But the Bucs were still in command and Freeman kept the heat on, throwing deep over the middle to Jackson. The ball fell incomplete and an instant later, Jackson was flattened by a blatant, after-the-fact hit. The referees, however, threw no flag for what by all rights should have been a personal foul and first down.

Instead, Freeman tried forcing his next throw over the middle to Sammie Stroughter and the ball was picked off by cornerback Corey Webster at the Buc 36. The Bucs’ defense still rose to the occasion, preventing the Giants from finding the end zone in spite of enjoying a first and goal from the 2. They had to settle for a 24-yard Tynes field goal to make it 27-19, but the pendulum had swung on the previous two-play Tampa Bay sequence — and Manning was about to have his way.

In spite of the loss, the Bucs had reason to be pleased on several counts. Rookie tailback Doug Martin carried 20 times for 66 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown. The former Boise State star showed off some nifty moves for a five-yard gain on a first and 10 from New York’s 13 in the second quarter. Then, after hitting a wall up the middle,  Martin doubled back and ran around left end untouched for an 8-yard score for a 17-6 Bucs’ lead.

Connor Barth added two more field goals — one from 52 yards and another from 45 — to extend his club record of consecutive field goals to 20. It’s also the longest active streak in the NFL.

But the big performance was turned in by Manning, who fell just shy of breaking Phil Simms’ franchise mark of 513 passing yards. Along with 94 rushing yards, the Giants wound up outgaining the Bucs in total yards 604-307, while controlling the clock 33:29-26:31.

Following the final offensive fireworks, there were some game-ending sparks between Schiano and New York head coach Tom Coughlan, who was upset that his Buc counterpart had ordered his players to rush the line on the final kneel-down play.

Coughlan refused to shake hands at first and yelled at Schiano at midfield over a play he felt endangered his players.

“I don’t think you do that,” Coughlin told reporters following the game. “You jeopardize the O-line, you jeopardize the quarterback. Thank goodness we didn’t get anybody hurt — that I know of. A couple of linemen were late coming in.”

But Schiano, a rookie NFL head coach out of Rutgers University, defended the tactic and last-ditch attempt to cause a fumble, insisting his team will always play to the bitter end.

“I don’t know if that’s something not done in the National Football League,” he responded his postgame press briefing. “What I do with our football team is we fight until they tell us ‘game over.’ There’s nothing dirty about it. There’s not illegal about it. We crowd the ball. It’s like a sneak defense and we try to knock it loose. If people watched Rutgers, they would know that’s what we did at the end of the game. We’re not going to quit. That’s the way I coach and teach our players.”

Going against NFL etiquette didn’t sit well with Giants players — including Manning, who called it  “a little bit of a cheap shot.”

But the play certainly signals a new, aggressive approach and never-say-die Buc mindset under Schiano. Still, coming close to winning Sunday clearly wasn’t enough to put a smile on his face — even against the favored and well-established Giants. The rookie NFL head coach and his young team knew they had let one slip away.

“We had a pretty good lead,” he said. “If you look at the game, what changed is  in the first half we got take-aways. It’s not like we really did a great job shutting them down in the first half. But we got take-aways that led to points. In the second half, they got take-aways… and that’s how the game kind of flipped. Even one (more) take-away could have put it over the top, but we didn’t do it.”

They’ll get their next shot against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday in Irving. And judging from the step the Bucs took Sunday — coupled with the step backward the Cowboys’ took in a 23-7 loss in Seattle — it’s a matchup that suddenly looks a lot more interesting.