Wednesday, 4 a.m.
Where did it go?
It was right there in their hands, like a set of car keys. It was under lock and key. It was put away safely.
And then, in the blink of an eye – maybe two blinks – and it was gone. Other teams were talking about the playoffs. Other teams were dreaming about the Super Bowl. The Bucs were left to talk about improvement and progress … in a non-playoff season.
So what happened? How did the playoff possibilities that were so strong vaporize with a late-season swoon.
How do you miss the playoffs in 25 easy steps?
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1. The pass rush, New Orleans: Quarterback Drew Brees is a hard man to beat, but it's close to impossible if you can't get a rush on him. The Bucs had two sacks, but they failed to put consistent heat on Brees, and he shredded them for 299 yards and a touchdown. Failing to handle Brees better proved to be the costliest loss of the year.
2. Clock management, Los Angeles Rams: The Bucs were in the middle of a furious comeback against Los Angeles when Charles Sims was tackled in bounds after a 12-yard reception. Coach Dirk Koetter chose to “push the envelope” on the clock, declining to call a time out. When the Bucs ran out of time on the 5-yard line, it resulted in a crucial early-season loss.
3. Pass defense, Oakland Raiders: One of the keys to the Bucs' five-game winning streak late in the season was its safety play. But by the same token, the safeties were horrible against the Raiders. Derek Carr threw for 513 yards and four scores, enabling the Raiders to overcome 200 yards worth of penalties and two key missed field goals by Sebastian Janikowski.
4. The lost quarter, Cardinals. The Cardinals have had a terrible season this year (6-8-1), but in week two, both the Cards and Bucs thought they were a pretty good team. With that 24-point second period, the Cardinals pulled away in a 40-7 victory.
5. The decision to bring back Vincent Jackson, March: Yes, the Bucs like Jackson. But he never was the same after his 2015 injury. He caught only 15 passes – and didn't have a 50-yard game – for the Bucs. Speaking coldly, the Bucs could have invested in a better free agent.
6. Jameis Winston, Cardinals: Winston had one of his harshest nights of his career. He threw four interceptions, 25 incompletions, a fumble and three sacks in the loss to Arizona.
7. Roberto Aguayo, Rams: Aguayo had a horrible start to the season. In particular, he missed a field goal and an extra point against the Rams. The Bucs spent most of the day chasing that missed point, failing on two two-point conversions in their defense.
8. Rushing defense, Saints: The Saints were only the 17th-ranked offense in the league coming in, but ran for 123 yards and kept Brees in manageable down-and-distance situations all afternoon.
9. Decision to re-sign Doug Martin, March: This is lower on the list because, frankly, all of us would have re-signed him after he was second in the NFL last year. But Martin has been horrible, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. He was benched Sunday against the Saints.
10. Offensive line, Denver: The Bucs gave up five sacks to the Broncos and rushed for only 72 yards.
11. Pass defense, Cowboys: Rookie Dak Prescott hit 32 of 36 passes against the Bucs and helped stop their five-game winning streak.
12. Offense, Cowboys: The Bucs had five chances to take a lead against the Cowboys. They failed five times (three punts, two interceptions). They had four yards rushing and Winston was three of 12 for 19 yards.
13. Run defense, Dallas: Zeke Elliott rushed for 159 yards against the Bucs in the Cowboys win
14. Running game, Atlanta: The Bucs didn't have Doug Martin nor Jacquizz Rodgers against the Falcons, and it showed. The leading rusher for the game was Peyton Manning with only 31 yards. As team, the Bucs had 70.
15. Decision to sign J.R. Sweezy, March: The Bucs were questioned enough when they signed guard Sweezy from Seattle, but the barbs grew after Sweezy missed the entire season. Will he be remembered as another Anthony Collins? We'll see.
16. Second and 17, Broncos: The Bucs were behind 20-7, but they still had a shot at a flawed Denver team. The Broncos had lost starter Trevor Simian, but on second-and-17, Paxton Lynch hit Jordan Norwood for 21 yards. The Broncos went on to close out the Bucs.
17. Winston tackled from behind, Rams: The Bucs were 15 feet away from winning and Winston was on the move. But he never really ripped it toward the end zone against the Rams, and defensive end Robert Quinn tackled him from behind to preserve the win.
18. Winston interception, Dallas: Winston threw a pick with 12 minutes to go and the score tied at 20. Dallas kicked its final two field goals for the go-ahead points.
19. Pass interference, Atlanta: The Bucs trailed 20-14 at the half, but Atlanta came out in the third period and marched downfield. Tampa Bay apparently had the drive stopped when Matt Ryan threw incomplete. But a flag was thrown on Vernon Hargreaves, giving the Falcons a first-and-goal. Atlanta scored and ran away with the game.
20. Old friend catching passes, Raiders: The Bucs held a 10-3 lead early, but old teammate Donald Penn caught a one-yard pass to tie the game.
21. Pass rushing, Cardinals: Tampa Bay had one sack for four yards, the least amount of sack yardage on the season.
22. Penalty discipline, Atlanta: In their rematch with the Falcons, Lovie Smith might as well have been back. The Bucs were penalized 11 times for 85 yards.
23. Old friend catching passes II, Denver: Aqib Talib picked off Jameis Winston twice in Denver's victory.
24. Trying to Find Mike, Arizona: Mike Evans has had a terrific year. But against Arizona, he caught only one third (six) of the passes thrown to him (18).
25. Oops, Part II, New Orleans: Two weeks after Josh Huff let a kickoff bounce off of his face, he muffed another one for the Bucs. Two plays after that, Winston threw an interception, and the Saints made it a two-score game.