INDIANAPOLIS — Ah, they fooled us.
Not only that, they fooled themselves.
Just when you started to get excited, just when you thought the Bucs were onto something kind of special, Sunday happened.
What exactly happened? The Bucs lost.
But there's more to it than that. It was more than just a loss. They lost a game you probably thought they were going to win. They lost a game that they probably thought they were going to win.
This one was there for the taking, and the Bucs, instead, decided to leave it.
"We really thought we had a good chance to win this game," Bucs tight end Cameron Brate said. "But that's the NFL."
How true. Just when you think you're going to take a big bite out of someone, you get kicked straight in the teeth. That's the lesson the Bucs learned Sunday. Don't count your NFL victories before they hatch.
And don't go thinking you're better than you are.
"Bad day at the office," running back Doug Martin said.
Ouch. This one is going to leave a mark. They could be 6-5 right now. Instead, they are 5-6.
That's a different vibe, eh?
"There is still a good vibe," Bucs coach Lovie Smith insisted right after the game. "We just didn't play well today. To say this is a step back is saying that's where we are. No. Today, we didn't play well."
Sure feels like a step back. Tampa Bay had won two in a row and had a 12-6 halftime lead on Sunday and then it all just disappeared.
As defensive tackle Gerald McCoy points out, sometimes you lose. Half the teams that played Sunday lost. It happens. Still, Sunday's loss leaves a bitter aftertaste because it felt like Tampa Bay had turned things around and was ready to go on a nice roll, a roll that included winning more than a mere two games in a row.
Especially with a beatable team such as the Colts there for the beating.
But the Bucs just weren't ready for that. They proved they don't have enough talent to win on talent alone.
By no means is this meant to bury the Bucs, or to suggest they went from promising to dreadful in an afternoon. Despite Sunday's loss, this team is improving. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. This direction is pointed up.
But Sunday's loss to a mediocre Colts team playing a 40-year-old backup quarterback reminds us of a few sobering facts about these up-and-coming Bucs.
Most notably, they still have more up-and-coming to do.
The hurdle has not been cleared. The growing pains remain. This team still doesn't have this winning thing totally down pat.
Think about this 2015 season. The Bucs have won a couple of games that you didn't see coming. But they are punting away some games that leave you a little surprised and a lot disappointed.
And, surely, confused. Like Sunday.
How did this one get away?
Good teams, like the ones that make the playoffs, find ways to win games such as Sunday's.
The Bucs found a way to lose.
Dumb penalties like jumping offsides and costly penalties like unsportsmanlike conducts. Dropped passes, including another crucial one by wide receiver Mike Evans. Poor defensive schemes and even worse execution, especially in the secondary, which turned back into its Swiss cheese ways. An offense that put in only half a day's work.
Sounds familiar, right?
These are things the Bucs were doing early in the season when they were losing more than they were winning, when they were losing games that we thought they should be winning.
"I don't believe this was the real Bucs," Martin said.
Actually, this is exactly who the real Bucs are. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, and a lot of bouncing around in between. From week to week and sometimes from quarter to quarter. That's what you get with a team that is still trying to figure out how to go from where the Bucs were to where they want to be.
It's just that we convinced ourselves that the Bucs had taken the fast track to good stuff. After back-to-back wins against Dallas and Philadelphia, we all thought the Bucs had grown out of their awkward stage, especially after how they manhandled the Eagles.
But Sunday's loss proves that the Bucs remain a work in progress. They lost Sunday's game because they deserved to lose Sunday's game. They didn't play well enough or smart enough to get anything better than what they got. Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck looked like he did 10 years ago when he was in his prime and carving up defenses as quarterback of the Seahawks.
For Tampa Bay, it felt like a step back after a couple of sturdy steps forward.
"I wouldn't say we took a step back as much as we didn't gain any ground," McCoy said. "We're still the same team. We're still a good team. We just didn't play like us."
Yeah, they kind of did. We shouldn't be surprised by any of this.
Yet, we all probably are a little surprised at what happened Sunday. We expected more. We expected better.
We got fooled.