Given an opportunity to clinch their third NFC South title in six years — and remain a player for a higher playoff seed in the NFC — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squandered that opportunity against a scrappy Houston Texans team, losing 28-14 at Reliant Stadium on Sunday.
Houston (6-7) started backup Sage Rosenfels at quarterback and the journeyman delivered a solid performance, going 27-of-36 for 209 yards and three touchdowns, though he did commit two turnovers, one of which the Buccaneers turned into a score.
But the Texans, who have had difficulty sustaining drives all season due to a sub-par run game, did so on Sunday, even though their backs gained less than 100 yards.
The Buccaneers (8-5), seeking to improve their standing in the NFC playoff hunt, can still clinch the division title this week, if both Carolina and New Orleans lose this weekend. If not, then the Buccaneers can clinch the division title at home against Atlanta next Sunday.
QB Luke McCown made his second start of the season for injured starter Jeff Garcia and played well, going 25-of-38 for 288 yards. He did not, however, have as efficient an outing as he had last week, committing a key turnover in the third quarter that allowed the Texans to take a double-digit lead and control of the game.
McCown was audibling into a new play in a shotgun formation when he received the snap from C John Wade too early, fumbling the ball and Houston's C.C. Brown recovered the ball and returned it to the Buccaneers 17-yard line.
Rosenfels then led the Texans to their third offensive touchdown of the game, tossing a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Owen Daniels to open the fourth quarter.
That was the second time the Texans converted a touchdown in the short field as they scored on a 23-yard drive in the second quarter, capped by Rosenfels' 8-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Walter.
The Buccaneers defense did convert two turnovers, both by DE Greg White, who finished with three sacks and two forced fumbles. His first, coming in the second quarter, set up the Buccaneers' first touchdown of the game courtesy of a 4-yard touchdown run by Earnest Graham.
Graham had another touchdown run in the third quarter, an 11-yarder, to cut Houston's lead to 21-14. He finished with 61 yards rushing and his second multiple touchdown game of the season.
White's second forced fumble and sack actually triggered the sequence that led to McCown's miscue. White came from behind a rolling Rosenfels and sacked him to jar the ball loose. Bucs DT Jovan Haye recovered the ball and returned it 9 yards to give the Bucs the football in a 7-point game.
The Buccaneers also gave up a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to Andre Davis to open the second half, giving the Texans a 21-7 lead.
Davis took the kick, allowed his wall to set up on the right side and then turned the corner and never looked back for the score.
The Bucs defense and special teams had given up 28 points, they most they've allowed since giving up 33 to Indianapolis in Week 5.
Rosenfels' 4-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson gave the Texans a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Rosenfels drove the Texans the length of the field before hitting Johnson with a quick pass into the flat, which he ran into the end zone for his sixth touchdown reception this season.
McCown drove the Buccaneers into Texans territory on the opening drive of the game, but the drive sputtered when head coach Jon Gruden gambled on a 4th-and-2 at the Texans 34. Graham fell two yards short of the first down, giving the Texans the football.
McCown completed his first seven passes of the game.
Before the game, the Buccaneers declared Garcia, RB Michael Pittman and DE Greg Spires inactive. Pittman did not make the trip to Houston.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.