They have rarely stood this close to excellence, and because of it, the Tampa Bay Bucs have rarely seemed so far away from it.
Standing across from a team with a perfect record, the Bucs have never seemed more flawed. Standing across from a team this impressive, the Bucs have never looked so insignificant. Standing next to a team so spotless, the Bucs and their 1-9 record have never looked quite so dirty.
Over there were the Saints, a team that is pretty darned good.
And over there were the Bucs, a team that isn't.
You want a real measurement of this Tampa Bay team? New Orleans was happy to provide one Sunday afternoon in a 38-7 drubbing that summed up both teams perfectly. The Saints look as if they're going a long way. The Bucs look as if they have a long way to go.
For coach Raheem Morris, and for the entire Bucs front office, this was the biggest reality check of the season. The Saints showed the Bucs just how bad they are and just how far they have to go to catch up in the NFC South. No team, not even the Giants, not even the Patriots, has done a better job of making the Bucs look like the lesser team.
Who do the Bucs want quarterback Josh Freeman to grow up to be? Why, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees would do just fine.
What kind of creative play-calling do the Bucs want to emulate? Why, that of New Orleans coach Sean Payton would be just dandy.
What kind of relentless offensive line would you like the Bucs to have? Again, that Saints bunch that ground the Bucs into dust would be splendid.
The Saints were more focused, more resilient, more aggressive. Compare the starting lineups: At how many positions would you give the Bucs the edge? Three? Four? Put it this way: The only Saint the Bucs are close to is St. Jude, the saint of desperate causes.
So, are the Saints really that much better than the Bucs? Is the talent as disparate as a 31-point deficit would suggest?
"Yeah, probably," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "There is a reason we're 1-9, and there is a reason they're 10-0."
Do you know what Sunday's game looked like? It looked like one of the college games in which Florida plays Louisiana Tech or Texas plays UTEP. At first, the Saints seemed a little distracted, but in the end, they pulled away easily.
Not only did the Saints look miles ahead of the Bucs, they looked years ahead of them, too. Ask yourself: How long will it take a franchise like the Bucs to catch up to the Saints? For the next few years, are the Bucs going to be the Duke, the Vanderbilt, the Baylor of this conference? They aren't good, and they don't have good's phone number.
"If you want to talk about the disparity of talent, you've got to talk about the coaching staff as well," Morris said. "We've got to get better and play with who we have."
Fine. Payton was the better coach in this game, too. By a lot. That said, however, the Bucs need a lot of help. Over the previous two weeks, if you used a ruler with small enough numbers, you could see centimeters of improvement. Out of Geno Hayes. Out of Roy Miller. Maybe even Quincy Black. (And Aqib Talib is on his way to becoming a big deal.)
A game like this sobers everyone up. This is still a bottom-feeder of a team with which losing is never a surprise and never an outrage.
Oh, defensive end Stylez White was sufficiently ticked Sunday afternoon. Give him that much.
"I'm p----- off, I'm embarrassed, and I'm frustrated," he said. "We aren't fighting for the playoffs, and we aren't fighting for a respectable record. We're fighting for jobs."
Remember this: The Saints came in shorthanded. They didn't have Reggie Bush, and they didn't have either of their starting cornerbacks. And they won by 31.
"They have a great thing going," Bucs center Jeff Faine said. "I'll give them all the kudos in the world. They definitely deserve and demand the respect of their record and what they've done this far. But I don't think the scoreboard is reflective of how far these teams are apart right now.
"In the future, and hopefully in the near future, (there will be) some great knockdown, drag-out fights between the Bucs and the Saints. I don't think we're years away. I really don't. One good offseason can make a huge difference, especially if we get some continuity and some carryover."
Maybe. Maybe the Bucs will draft well, and maybe they'll import a few free agents, and maybe the young players on their team will get better. Maybe Brees will decide to become a professional golfer.
On Sunday, however, the Bucs saw close up just how steep the climb up the mountain will be. They saw the standard they have to meet and the skills they have to match.
"If we're going to win anything," Morris said, "this is who we have to beat."
From here, it seems as if they have a long way to go.