ATLANTA — You can watch every tantalizing frame of the final play of the game over and over again until make yourself sick at how close the Bucs came to pulling off a miracle.
You can curse kicker Chandler Catanzaro for missing an extra-point that haunted the Bucs all afternoon.
You can bang your head against the wall and shake your fists in the air over yet two more careless interceptions thrown by Jameis Winston.
But you want to know the real reason the Bucs lost their third straight game of the season in Atlanta on Sunday?
Because the defense stinks.
That's it. Plain and simple. The Bucs gave up too many points. They always give up too many points.
They can't stop the other team. They can't get turnovers. They can't get off the field when they really need to get off the field. They start so poorly and fall so far behind and dig such a deep hole that the rest of the team simply can't climb out of it.
And when that happens, you lose a bunch of football games.
I don't want to hear about how well the defense played in the second half and how they almost sparked a victory. Bottom line: From the start, the Bucs defense never gave Tampa Bay a chance.
When the defense plays like it did Sunday and like it has pretty much all season, any little mistake — a missed PAT, an interception, a dumb penalty, whatever — becomes a game-altering, back-breaking mistake. Those things wouldn't keep a team up at night if the defense played well enough to make those mistakes moot.
Put it this way: There's simply no room for error when the Bucs defense routinely gives up 30-some points a game.
Want to know how bad it is? The Bucs gave up 24 points in the first half Sunday and that was the best half of football they had played in a month.
By the time it buckled down in the second half, it was too late.
"We can't play a tale of two halves,'' Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "We can't do that against … everybody in the NFL is good. We're playing against good teams.''
Look at the Bucs three losses.
Against Pittsburgh, they were down 30-10 at the half. Against Chicago, they were down 38-3. And Sunday, they were down 24-13.
I don't care how resilient you are and how hard you compete and how good your offense is, how are you supposed to win games like that?
These games are over at halftime.
"It's not fun to be struggling in any aspect of football,'' Koetter said. "We know we can come back. We don't want to dig ourselves in that kind of hole.''
Interestingly, the Bucs' defense has allowed only 20 points total in the second half of the past three games. And the Bucs' offense has put up 40 points in the second half of the past three games. When you double up your opponents in the second half over three games and come away with zero victories, it just goes to show you how crummy and debilitating the first halves have been.
"We got to start better,'' Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. "We got to be able to find a way we played in the second half at the beginning. We've got to find a way to be consistent throughout the whole football game. That's our issue right now. That's something we've got to fix.''
The problem Sunday was third down.
"We couldn't get off the field on third down,'' Koetter said.
The Falcons were 8 of 13 on third downs, including 4 of 5 in the first half.
The other problem? Turnovers. Or the lack thereof from the Bucs defense. It's okay to give up chunks of yards if you can occasionally force a turnover. But the Bucs can't even do that. They have five forced turnovers in five games and are dead last in the league with just one interception.
Turnovers not only stop drives, they build momentum and excitement. They mean as much for the psyche as anything.
"We lost the turnover battle 2-0,'' Koetter said. "Tough to win.''
The only good things you can say about Sunday are it wasn't nearly as bad as the loss to the Bears two weeks ago and the offense looks pretty decent.
"I'm encouraged by how we fought and how we competed and how we kept playing through a first half that had a feeling of, 'Here we go,' at times,'' Koetter said. "But bottom line is you got to end up with one more point than your opponent and we didn't.''
Why didn't they? Because the defense gave up too many points. As usual.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones