Monday, 4 a.m.
On another night, perhaps Jameis Winston doesn't throw the ball too far.
In another stadium, perhaps Mike Evans makes another terrific catch.
In another game, perhaps the duo hooks up one more time, and the Tampa Bay Bucs manage to pull the Cowboys' game out at the end, too.
That's what you are used to seeing, right? By now, Bucs fans are used to the sight of the Bucs finding a way. They are used to celebrating someone taking the ball away at the end. They are used to Winston leading this team downfield. They are used to seeing men measure up to the moment.
Perhaps that is why it felt so strange — and so lousy — with 2:24 left in the fourth period when Winston had Evans open down the left sideline … and overthrew
Content beyond this point is for members only.
Already a member? To view the rest of this column, sign in using the handy "Sign In" button located in the upper right corner of the GarySheltonSports.com blog (its at the far right of the navigation bar under Gary's photo)!
Not a member? It's easy to subscribe so you can view the rest of this column and all other premium content on GarySheltonSports.com.
him. This time, there would be no rescue. This time, coach Dirk Koetter didn't get to say that “the good guys win.” This time, the two missed, and it was as symbolic as any play in Tampa Bay’s 26-20 loss.
The Bucs actually had the ball five times with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter ... and failed five times. During that period, Winston was three of 12 for 19 yards and two interceptions. Martin carried twice for four yards. The five drives ended up with three punts and two interceptions.
And you probably threw your remote control, didn't you?
That's the thing about losing. The less a team does it, the more it hurts. After five straight games of being one of the better teams in the NFL, the Bucs left their fans gargling with acid. This game cost so much — a share of the division lead, expectations of the post-season and their growing self-confidence.
Sure, you can suggest that the Bucs would have been darned fortunate to win this one. Winston threw three interceptions and had a fumble. The defense let Dak Prescott hit 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards. They let Zeke Elliott ramble for 153 yards. They let Dallas run 71 plays for 449 yards. They gave up four sacks.
Part of it, it seems, was that the Bucs came out too amped up. Remember, this is a franchise that isn't used to playing in huge games. Maybe that has something to do with the silly head-butt by Winston earlier. Again, I like Winston's passion, but leadership is about being calm; it isn't about running into Ric Flair. The Bucs, as a whole, seemed too revved up at the start.
During this streak of overachievement by the Bucs, however, that has been part of their charm. They made stats irrelevant.
Not Sunday night, however.
“We didn't play as smart as we have,” said Bucs' coach Dirk Koetter. “We didn't play as well.”
So how intelligent will the Bucs be for the next two weeks? The five-game winning streak is over, but are the Bucs capable of going on a two-game streak? They play at New Orleans and at home against Carolina, both teams the Bucs have beaten. If the Bucs really are a playoff team, they should be able to beat both again. The Bucs are ahead of both in the standings. Still, the Bucs have to go through Drew Brees and Cam Newton to be reasonably sure of the post-season, which is never easy.
"Just top to bottom, we did not play as well as we’ve been playing," Koetter said. "Part of that is playing against a good football team and part of that is that this a tough environment. It was loud out there. This will serve us well next week when we go to play the Saints.
"It would be somewhat understandable to a game of this magnitude in this stage. There’s a lot of young guys out there who haven’t been in a game of this magnitude before. Like I said, this will serve us well down the road. It hurts a lot tonight."
The key? Like always, that's Winston. Sure, it would be wonderful if Doug Martin would break in either game, but he doesn't have a 100-yard game all season. Mike Evans has been ordinary for three weeks.
That leaves it to the second-year quarterback, who was simply too streaky on Sunday. He had downfield targets, but he was off. The Bucs will be far better off when Winston establishes more of a passer's touch. He'll be better, too, when the Bucs can put an offensive line like the Cowboys' in front of him and a better back.
“We just have to keep winning and see how it plays out," Winston said. "I’m going to keep fighting and I am not worried about not fighting. We just need to keep winning games and the more games we win, the better chance we have to get into the postseason.”
For the sake of their own growth, the Bucs need to make a legitimate run toward these playoffs. After a five-game winning streak, what good is 8-8? Ten Wins? That's a better deal.
A smart team gets there. A controlled team. An efficient team.