TAMPA — This was their chance.
This was their time to prove they belong with the big boys of the NFL. This was a game when the Bucs could, finally and definitively, announce to the world that they are to be taken seriously.
They almost pulled it off.
In the cruel cold world of the NFL, almost might as well be the Grand Canyon. All that matters are wins and losses, and the Bucs lost 19-14 Thursday night. They're still looking for a seat at the grown-up's table.
See, for the past year or so, the Bucs have been the darlings of those who are looking for the league's next big thing — the team that is supposed to go from pretender to contender, from middle of the pack to top of the heap.
All the Bucs have been missing is that statement victory, that moment when they prove they belong. Thursday offered the perfect opportunity.
Prime time. Thursday Night Football. National television. Against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
And how did they do? They kicked it away.
Normally, losing to the Patriots is nothing to be ashamed of. We're talking about the best quarterback and coach in NFL history. We're talking about the greatest dynasty the game has ever seen.
Yet losing to the Patriots on Thursday night felt like simply another kick in the shins for a franchise still looking to climb the hill of respectability. The Patriots really don't look like the Patriots at the moment. They're vulnerable, ripe to be beaten. They're banged up, especially on offense, and if the Bucs were ever going to win such a game against an NFL heavyweight, this felt like their best chance.
A victory was there for the taking, and the Bucs left it.
The Patriots looked sloppy for much of the night. Brady, who almost never throws interceptions, threw one on the first New England possession. It was a horrible throw, a gift for Tampa Bay. Yet, the Bucs did nothing with it.
The defense sacked Brady twice in the first half. They forced bad throws. The Patriots dropped passes. They committed like a million penalties. In the second half, another Brady sack led to a fumble, which the Bucs recovered.
And still next to nothing. The Bucs should have won the game.
But this game was lost because the offense couldn't pull its weight. Where have you heard that before? The offense failing to live up to its hype is too often the case when Tampa Bay loses big games.
Yes, fingers will be pointed at kicker Nick Folk, who missed three field goals and almost certainly won't be employed by the Bucs much longer. But where's this explosive offense we heard about all offseason? They should have been scoring touchdowns instead of missing field goals.
Jameis Winston continues to be frustratingly inaccurate. He misses throws all over, especially downfield and especially to wide open DeSean Jackson. Too often his throws are too high or too low or too wide or too something other than where they are supposed to be.
Does he get too hyped in big games or is this simply who he is, a wildly talented quarterback who is just too wild, liable to misfire as often as he hits his targets?
That answer is yet to be determined, but this is a fact: Until Winston plays bigger in big games, the Bucs will continue to lose big games. He was spectacular in the fourth quarter, throwing for 225 yards. But where was he in the first three quarters?
And, in the end, they still only scored 14 points.
"You can't score 14 points and expect to win,'' coach Dirk Koetter said.
That's not nearly good enough in the NFL and nowhere near acceptable against a horrible New England defense that was giving up more than 30 points a game. For Tampa Bay, the fourth-quarter rally was exciting but ultimately too little, too late.
The season wasn't lost Thursday. It was a brutal loss, the kind that sticks in your craw for a while. But there's still a long way to go.
This much, however, is clear: The Bucs are still looking to prove they belong with big boys. They didn't do it Thursday night.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.