FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As the first day of fall arrived Sunday, the storm clouds cleared, the sun splashed Gillette Stadium and a refreshing 65 degrees greeted the Bucs as they took the field against the Patriots.
Turned out it wasn't just the leaves everybody came to see drop.
Tight end Tim Wright and receiver Vincent Jackson had catchable touchdown passes fall through their hands during the first half, which set the tone for another forgettable day for the offense and Josh Freeman.
Tampa Bay's beleaguered quarterback completed less than 50 percent of his passes for the third straight game (19-of-41). And the Bucs mustered only a field goal in a 23-3 loss to the Patriots that left them 0-3 for the first time since 2009.
Instead of how far can this team go, the question for Tampa Bay has become: How much further can it fall?
"We feel like we've got a good team that can put up a lot of points," receiver Mike Williams said. "It's frustrating to put up only three."
The Bucs drove inside the Patriots 40 six times and came away with only a 30-yard Rian Lindell field goal, the only offensive points they have scored over the past seven quarters.
They were stopped four times on fourth down, including twice during the second quarter — on fourth and 5 at the Patriots 34 when Freeman fired incomplete and on fourth and 1 at the 38, when running back Doug Martin was stopped for no gain.
Lindell also missed a 38-yard field goal wide right to end the Bucs' first possession.
"It's all part of winning," said coach Greg Schiano, who did not return home with the team because of an undisclosed family medical matter. "The plays you have control over, you have to make. If you don't, you're on borrowed time.
"I thought we hung in there early, and it was a good football game. And as time went on, we didn't make plays, and we didn't convert. It wasn't an explosion. It was a gradual tipping of the scales. When you stop making plays, it just goes like that."
Jackson did not play during the second half because of a rib injury, forcing Freeman to fire to relatively new targets such as Wright — signed in April after going undrafted out of Rutgers — and receivers Kevin Ogletree and Eric Page — both in their first seasons with the Bucs.
"The chemistry was a little different," Freeman said.
The loss, the eighth in the past nine games under Schiano dating to last season, spoiled another good effort by the defense.
Tampa Bay trailed only 7-3 late in the first half before Patriots quarterback Tom Brady found rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins for a 5-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds left. The drive was aided by a 5-yard illegal contact penalty against linebacker Lavonte David and 28-yard pass interference penalty against rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks.
Rather than let the clock expire, however, the Bucs tried to push the issue with the ball on their 31 and 16 seconds left. Freeman was intercepted by former Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib, setting up a 53-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal for a 17-3 lead.
The score could have been more lopsided. Safety Mark Barron intercepted Brady in the end zone during the third quarter, and the Patriots failed on fourth down inside the Bucs 10 with 2:57 to play.
"I think right now, we all just have to stick together," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "I'm not on offense. I don't know what the game plan is. All I know is they're my teammates. I've got to sit beside them whatever the outcome is."
Freeman passed for 236 yards and an interception. But inside the Patriots 40, he was 4-of-19 for 45 yards.
Meanwhile, Schiano, in his second year, is having a tough time dispelling perceptions he is in too deep to be a successful NFL coach.
Eleven times, the Bucs have started 0-3, and they have never won more than six games. Since the 16-game schedule began in 1978, only 3 percent of teams that have been winless in their first three games reached the playoffs.
"I have great confidence this team will stick together, this team will win," Schiano said. "I said it (last) week, and I haven't changed my feelings about the staff or team because of (Sunday's) game. I believe they believe that. It's back to work. It's a long season. I'm confident we'll improve and we'll win."
Or like the falling foliage, what if their true colors are just starting to show?
"All that matters is wins and losses," Freeman said.
"And we've got to find a way to start winning."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]