EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
Before you talk about a lead that slipped away in the final seconds, before you point out that the personal-foul penalty against Lavonte David was borderline, before you discuss the squandered comeback, you must first come to terms with this:
The Bucs lost to that team.
The Jets? Why, the Jets are awful. The Jets are dreadful. Losing to the Jets is like losing a drag race to a parked car.
The head coach has so much heat on him that he may burst into flames at any moment, and the rookie quarterback was making his first start, and the receivers are ordinary, and the running backs are pedestrian. There is so much negativity here that fans are already talking about next year's draft.
And, from all indications, the Bucs are worse.
The Bucs toiled mightily to manage their 18-17 defeat at the hands of the Jets on Sunday afternoon. They sputtered offensively. They committed 13 penalties, including five for first downs. They gave up three sacks and a safety. They blew a 14-5 lead. They averaged 2.6 yards per rush. They looked too disorganized early and too undisciplined late.
Worst of all, they held a two-point lead with 15 seconds to play, and they still managed to lose.
After this, the season ahead looks something like a long, dark tunnel. Yes, this was only one game, and sure, half the teams in the league lost, and granted, there is a lot of football to be played.
Losing teams always say things like that. But this felt worse. This felt gloomy and dark and foreboding.
Put it this way: It wasn't exactly a reason to rush to the ticket window, was it? If the Bucs can lose to the Jets, what game looks safe to you?
The shame of it is that we are all looking for something better out of these Bucs. They have enough explosive players on offense. They have new weapons on defense. And somehow, they cannot coax the production that talent suggests. For some reason, the Bucs still look as if they are stuck in that miserable preseason of theirs, where the offense could find no spark and the defense could not slam the door.
"The big thing, offensively, it's frustrating to everyone because we have good players," coach Greg Schiano said. "We will find a rhythm to this offense. We certainly haven't found it yet, but we will."
As they say, time's a wasting. Consider the way the Bucs started Sunday, after months of the offseason to prepare for their couple of drives. Those are the tone-setter plays, the plays where a team can dictate to its opponent. Or not.
In their first nine plays, the Bucs had four penalties, including back-to-back delay of games, a sack and a bad snap that led to a safety. Schiano suggested his players were trying too hard, but the Jets were trying hard, too. And they didn't have near the chaos as a result.
It didn't get a lot better as the day went on, either. The Bucs offense continued to misfire. A lot of that was because of the way the Jets went after Doug Martin; coach Rex Ryan said they stayed in their base defense even when the Bucs went to multiple receivers.
Out of Martin's 24 carries, 18 of them were for 3 yards or less. Fifteen were for 2 yards or less.
That leads us to Josh Freeman. He had some moments, hitting Mike Williams for a 17-yard touchdown and hitting Vincent Jackson for 37 yards on a late drive that set up a go-ahead field goal. But Freeman also threw an interception that led to the only Jets touchdown.
And try as he might, he simply could not connect with Martin on the little swing pass the team kept running. By the end of the game, his quarterback rating was almost 13 points lower than that of Geno Smith, the rookie.
As for the defense, even with cornerback Darrelle Revis, it gave up 256 yards passing to Smith.
Worse, the Bucs kept getting in their own way.
They would make a defensive stop, and Leonard Johnson would be called for holding. They would make a play downfield, and Dashon Goldson would commit a personal foul.
Then came the biggest play of the game, when Smith was running down the right sideline in the final seconds. As he stepped out of bounds, David hit him. David was called for a personal foul that set up the Jets for their winning field goal.
Schiano stopped short of calling his defense undisciplined but admitted the Bucs need to play more under control. Of course they do. As nice as it is to be aggressive, a defensive team has to play a little smarter.
The best teams do.
Of course, the best teams will usually beat the Jets, too. The halfway decent ones, too.