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Broncos Take a Step Back, Move a Step Up : Interconference: Denver loses to Tampa Bay, 17-10, but still manages to qualify for the playoffs.

From Associated Press

Taking the act of backing into the playoffs to an even lower level, the Denver Broncos lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 17-10, Sunday--and still qualified for postseason play.

Craig Erickson completed two touchdown passes as Tampa Bay (5-10) ended a 20-game road losing streak against AFC teams.

Despite the setback, Denver (9-6) gained a wild-card playoff berth because of losses by Pittsburgh and the New York Jets (both 8-7). Denver holds the tiebreaker edge.

“Our goal in the last part of the season was to be in the playoffs--and we are--but this is no way to get in,” Bronco Coach Wade Phillips said. “I’m sure it was disappointing for Pittsburgh and the Jets as well.

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“We wanted to get something going as we headed into the playoffs, and this was not it. But we’ll take it. Our focus now has to be on the Raiders.”

Denver finishes the regular season next Sunday in Los Angeles, where Denver has lost five consecutive games.

While Phillips was bemoaning his team’s mistakes, Buccaneer Coach Sam Wyche was jubilant.

“We had a good day against one of the best teams in the NFL,” Wyche said, “and we beat them at their place, on their turf, in their house. The thing I’m proudest of is we were playing for nothing but pride.

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Erickson’s second touchdown pass, a 14-yarder to Courtney Hawkins early in the third quarter, was set up by a controversial fumble by Denver punt returner Glyn Milburn--one of three second-half fumbles by the Broncos.

Milburn fumbled the punt at the Broncos’ 15-yard line. Tampa Bay’s Roger Jones appeared to have interfered with Milburn’s opportunity to make a fair catch, but there was no flag.

“Glyn did not have an opportunity to catch the ball,” Phillips said. “He’s just a rookie and he learned a valuable lesson today: The opponent has to give him space. If a guy’s on top of you like that, all you do is step forward and the guy gets a 15-yard penalty. It was a terrible lesson for him to learn.”

But Jones said there was no contact on the play. “I got real close to his foot, but I didn’t step on it,” he said. “I might have surprised him, being that close to him.”

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Playing as if they knew the playoff outcome ahead of time, the Broncos self-destructed with penalties as well as turnovers.

Tampa Bay, a two-touchdown underdog, went ahead, 17-7, in the third quarter on Erickson’s touchdown pass to Hawkins.

Milburn helped redeem himself for the costly fumble with a 54-yard return later in the quarter, but the Broncos, after reaching the Buccaneers’ two, had to settle for a field goal.

John Elway drove the Broncos toward a potential tying touchdown in the final quarter, but Tony Kimbrough was stripped of the ball by Martin Mayhew after a 13-yard reception and the Buccaneers’ Joe King recovered at the Tampa Bay 27.

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Elway’s final comeback attempt fell short on downs at the Tampa Bay 29 with 1:23 remaining.


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