Only a month ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were on a roll, riding high. They were the talk of the town; the NFL, too.
Coach Greg Schiano urged caution. On the eve of what would be their fourth straight victory and fifth in six games he warned that, in a snap, it can all disappear.
And so it has.
A playoff contender when the day began, the Bucs lost for the fourth straight time Sunday, a 41-0 decision to the Saints at the Superdome that made their four-game midseason winning streak seem like an aberration.
"Up until this point we have had some tough losses, but they were one-score losses," Schiano said after his team was eliminated from NFC playoff contention. "This was a different animal."
Was it ever. Not only were the Bucs shut out by the lowest-ranked defense in the league, but their margin of defeat also was greater than the 33 points of all their previous seven margins put together.
It marked the first time the Bucs had been shut out since a 24-0 loss to the Giants in 2009 and the first shutout by the Saints in 17 years.
Let’s go right to the lowlights.
Quarterback Josh Freeman had easily his worst game of the season. He lost a fumble and threw four interceptions, including two in the first half on plays inside the Saints 27-yard line.
Rookie running back Doug Martin, the league’s second-leading total yardage producer going into the game, gained a season-low 37 yards, including just 16 on nine carries on the ground.
The Bucs ran so ineffectively that before LeGarrette Blount gained 25 yards on four carries in garbage time, their leading rusher was safety Keith Tandy, who ran for 18 yards on a fake punt four plays into the second half.
And then there was the defense, which picked up right where it left off a week ago when it allowed the lowly Philadelphia Eagles to rally from 11 points down to win in the final seven minutes.
Presenting a challenge that must have made Saints quarterback Drew Brees feel as if he were running a seven-on-seven practice drill, Tampa Bay surrendered 447 total yards on 65 offensive plays, or 7 yards per play. Brees finished 26 of 39 for 307 yards and four touchdowns.
Even the Bucs’ usually stout rush defense, which was ranked first in the league prior to Sunday, was no match for the Saints, who ran the ball only 25 times but gained 149 yards, or 6 yards per carry.
"Games like this, they just happen sometimes," veteran Bucs defensive back Ronde Barber said. "You don’t expect them to happen, but they happen. But if you’re looking for an answer as to why, I’m sorry, I don’t have one."
Actually, the answers were rather apparent.
Even after the Saints rolled to their first touchdown during a three-minute, seven-play, 74-yard opening drive, the Bucs were very much alive. Their slow demise started shortly thereafter, though, when Freeman threw his first pick, hitting Saints cornerback Jabari Greer as though he were aiming for him with a short pass intended for tight end Dallas Clark.
Coming on a second-and-10 play from the Saints 20, it was the first of two interceptions in a three-series span after driving into scoring territory, and it seemed to rip the life out of the Bucs.
At the very least it altered their game plan. The Saints produced 10 points off those two takeaways for a 17-0 lead, at which point the Bucs abandoned their run game and went to the air.
That was the wrong choice on this day, because Freeman and his receivers, particularly Clark and Vincent Jackson, were all dialed into different frequencies. Leading receiver Jackson didn’t catch a ball until 3:12 left in the third quarter
"Chalk it up to miscommunication," Freeman said. "There’s a fine line on a lot of different plays and we all have to be on the same page and there were a couple of times today where it just didn’t click as well as it should, as well as it needs to."
The Bucs offense hasn’t clicked for a month. After gaining 432 yards and scoring 31 points per game during a midseason stretch of six games, including five wins, Tampa Bay has averaged 333 yards and 17.2 points in its past four — all losses.
The reasons, Clark said, are many.
"It’s definitely not just one person," he said. "I’ll be the first one to say that it’s me, it’s everyone, and we all have to play better, but I think we have the people here that can make that happen."
Time isn’t necessarily on the Bucs’ side anymore. Certain to miss the playoffs, they have just two weeks left to get the pendulum of momentum swinging upward again.
That is Schiano’s objective. As he wrapped up his postgame news conference saying he still believes the Bucs are getting better overall, he realized his team has to show it in ways that are more tangible.
"If I am someone not in the organization, I can sit back and say it’s not getting better,” he said. "So, we need to make sure that the arrow is going up in these next two weeks.
"It’s going to be quite a challenge, because this is a physical game and I’m sure guys are going to be beat up. But I’ve been here before and I know what we have to do. We have to fight back."
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