Sometimes the Denver Broncos can't lose for winning.

Even a 17-10 loss at the hands of the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday couldn't prevent Denver from clinching a playoff spot."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," said a slightly embarrassed Wade Phillips, the Broncos' head coach.

Craig Erickson threw two touchdown passes as Tampa Bay (5-10) snapped a 20-game road losing streak to 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.

"We wanted to get something going as we headed into the playoffs, and this was not it," Phillips said. "But we'll take it. Our focus now has to be on the Raiders" in next week's regular-season finale in Los Angeles, where Denver has lost five straight games.

The Broncos are in the playoffs even if they lose to the Raiders. If they finish tied with both Pittsburgh and the Jets at 9-7, Denver prevails because of having beaten both. If Miami also finishes 9-7 for a four-way tie, Denver wins out because of having the best conference record among the four.

Buccaneers coach Sam Wyche saw the victory as another positive step for a faltering franchise which has had 11 consecutive seasons with at least 10 losses. Tampa Bay has won three of its last six games.

"We really turned a corner today by beating a quality football team," Wyche said. "The Broncos are one of the best teams in the NFL, and we beat them at their place, on their turf, in their house. This team's in the best shape it's been in since I've been here. It's coming the way we want it to.

"The thing I'm proudest of is we were playing for nothing but pride. We won in a playoff-type atmosphere, and this was our dress rehearsal. I kept telling our players: `This is what it's like in the playoffs, this feeling right here. Hear the crowd? This is what it sounds like. You've got John Elway on the other sideline, and he's one of the greatest comeback kings of all time and he's going to be coming down your throat.' "

But the Elway magic never happened.

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After Tampa Bay took a 17-7 lead early in the third quarter, Denver had four scoring opportunities, but managed only a field goal.

Erickson's second TD throw, a 14-yarder to Courtney Hawkins with 11:58 left 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.

Playing as if they knew the playoff outcome ahead of time, the Broncos self-destructed with penalties as well as turnovers. "You can't win a game like that," Phillips said.

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