TAMPA - And to think it all started off so well. The Bucs went 3-1 in the first quarter of the season, their only loss coming on the road at Seattle. Nothing to be ashamed of there.
Now look at them.
Oh, they're right there in the thick of the NFC South race, all right. But after losing 24-23 to Jacksonville at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, the Bucs are suddenly 4-4 and wondering where they are truly headed this season.
The playoffs, for instance, are no longer the good bet they seemed to be a few weeks ago. There is now just as much evidence to suggest the Bucs aren't a playoff team as there is to suggest they are.
They have lost consecutive games and three of their last four. Even worse, they have lost two straight 'winnable' games to teams (Jacksonville and Detroit), they deemed 'beatable.' Cornerback Ronde Barber will tell you playoff teams don't do that.
'Good teams don't lose two in a row,' he said after Sunday's setback. 'But bad teams do lose three in a row. I guess we'll find out which one we are next week. It could be that we're just a mediocre team.'
Many thought the Bucs would be mediocre this year. Look at the predictions posted in some of those preseason magazines. You'll find a lot of 'experts' picking the Bucs to finish around 8-8.
It's hard to argue they aren't headed for a finish like that after Sunday. Chances to win this game were there, and for the second week in a row, the Bucs couldn't take advantage of those chances.
'We were just a fraction off,' said quarterback Jeff Garcia, who had his string of pass attempts without an interception broken at 217 (278 counting playoffs) during what was easily his most ordinary outing of the season.
Garcia completed 19 of 41 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers and the three interceptions he threw left him with a season-worst passer rating of 45.5.
Still, few blamed Garcia for the outcome. Though he was clearly not as sharp as he had been the previous seven weeks, many believed Garcia gave the Bucs several chances to win this game.
Chief among them was receiver Ike Hilliard, who leaped to make a catch on what proved to be Garcia's last throw, only to have the ball pop out of his hands after a hit by cornerback Rashean Mathis and end up in the hands of safety Reggie Nelson. Hilliard blamed himself for the drop.
Coach Jon Gruden also was among those refusing to blame Garcia, pointing out the Bucs had several chances to make big plays that could have altered the outcome and simply failed.
'I thought we had 10 or 12 plays, big plays, big opportunities,' Gruden said. 'But we didn't cash in on some of the opportunities that we normally do, and that's the difference between winning and losing.
'I mean, they're out there making one-handed catches for touchdowns, and unfortunately for us, we're not able to come up with several big plays. There were opportunities, we just didn't get it done tonight.'
That 'one-handed' catch Gruden alluded to was a catch by Jaguars receiver Matt Jones for what proved to be the winning touchdown with 11:37 left in the fourth quarter. It was one of seven made by the Jaguars, who struggled to gain yardage throughout the day, primarily because of the play of quarterback Quinn Gray.
Making his first NFL start, Gray didn't attempt a pass until nine plays into the Jaguars' second series. When he did throw, his passes were often well overthrown or off target. Still, he became the first quarterback to beat a Monte Kiffin defense in his first NFL start because he didn't turn the ball over while completing seven of 16 passes for 100 yards and the one touchdown.
'It's all about the takeaways,' Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan said. 'Sure, we did well in some areas today, but we have to take the ball away, and we didn't do that.'
One of the areas the Bucs defense did fairly well in was against the run. Though the Jaguars gained 133 yards rushing, they needed 44 attempts, meaning they were limited to 3 yards per carry. They also were 4-for-16 on third down.
'It was pretty ugly, really,' said Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, who ran 24 times for 68 yards. 'But that doesn't matter. We got the victory, and that's what counts.'
What counts now for the Bucs is how they rebound. They probably have another 'beatable' team in the Arizona Cardinals, so the opportunity to bounce back will be there.
Garcia is among those who believe the Bucs will bounce back. He said they are close to getting back on the kind of run they had early in the year. Barber agreed, but he acknowledged the proof will only come in the result.
'I still think we're better than this,' he said. 'But we haven't shown it the last two weeks, and that tells you something. I mean, the record speaks for itself.'