TAMPA — Where's the passion? Where's the fire? Where's the fight?
Doggone it, where is the will to win?
The Bucs had everything to play for Sunday. A playoff spot was still a possibility. A big crowd filled Raymond James Stadium on a beautiful day. A beatable opponent playing out the string was on the other side.
These are the games that matter, the games you want to play in. A game like Sunday's is why you play football. If you can't get up for a game like that, what's the point?
And yet, the Bucs looked as if they couldn't have been the least bit bothered for most of Sunday's disjointed and disinterested 24-17 loss to the Saints.
What in the world?
"These games happen; can't give you a reason why," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "It happens. We didn't play well. They played better than we did."
Smith was annoyed in his postgame news conference. So were the players. Too bad they weren't as irritated and emotionally invested for the previous three hours.
Because of it, that elusive playoff spot has pretty much disappeared. The Bucs now have one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel because they treated Sunday's game with all the emotion of a backyard two-hand touch game. The only thing left for the Bucs now is pride, and maybe a .500 record if they deem the rest of the season worthy enough to show up.
That's too bad, because Sunday started with much greater possibilities.
"We kind of knew what was at stake," Smith said. "Normally you play your best ball when this much is on the line."
Instead, the Bucs played close to their worst. The thing that makes you scratch your head is just how indifferent the Bucs seemed. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, among others, used the word "flat." Here's another word to describe the Bucs' performance: undeserving.
"Very disappointing because things were happening the way that we needed them to happen," Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner said. "We just needed to win out. Things probably would have fell into place, and now we just dug ourselves in a hole."
If the Bucs can somehow manage to sweep the final three games, that would give them a 9-7 record. If the stars align just right, that might be enough to sneak into the playoffs. But that doesn't seem all that realistic.
Maybe for now, the Bucs should simply get to the bottom of what went wrong Sunday, starting with the fact that they just didn't seem ready emotionally to play. Instead, it was the now 5-8 Saints who showed the urgency of a team with something on the line.
The Bucs sleepwalked through much of Sunday as Saints quarterback Drew Brees carved his way up and down the field, converting 12 third downs. Once again, the Bucs defense went through a game without a takeaway.
But, limiting a Brees-led team to 24 points isn't the worst day in the world. Pin much of the blame on the sputtering offense, especially quarterback Jameis Winston. His final numbers were not horrible — 18-of-32 for 182 — but a good chunk of that came on one drive. Throw out that drive and the rookie was 11-of-24 for 98 yards.
Then again, a holding call on the first play of the game against Donovan Smith wiped out a 40-yard gain, and a couple of drops, including a critical one by Donteea Dye in the fourth quarter, hurt Winston's numbers as well as Tampa Bay's chances to win.
And yet, somehow, the Bucs were hanging around late in the game. Had it not been for a missed Connor Barth field goal and a couple of bone-headed penalties, the Bucs might have pulled this one out. Not that they would have deserved it.
"We never stopped fighting," Bucs center Joe Hawley said.
Some might argue that they never really started.
"Sometimes in football, this is the way it goes," Hawley said. "You can't get a rhythm going. … Very frustrating. We all left plays on the field. I think we're learning it takes every little thing to beat teams in the NFL. Nobody is easy. They're all getting paid a lot of money. They're all good players, so you've got to give your best every week."
You have to at least try.
As much as some might want to slam wide receiver Mike Evans for more penalties, including an undisciplined personal foul, I'll say this: at least the guy played with anger and emotion. At least he looked like he cared. That's more than you can say for a lot of his teammates Sunday.
"We didn't put a good product on the field," Smith said.
All in all, it was one of the sloppiest performances we have seen from the Bucs. Maybe Bucs fans shouldn't be stunned, although, for them, it stings. This was a chance to go over .500. This was a chance to keep their name right in the thick of the playoff contenders.
Now, after the discouraging loss, the Bucs are 6-7.
The playoffs now appear out of reach. So does a winning record with more performances like Sunday's.
They have just a few days to get ready for St. Louis on Thursday night. They can start by finding a little desperation.