TAMPA — They've already dropped the ball. Once in control of their playoff fate at 8-5, the Bucs essentially blew their chance to reach the postseason for the first time in nine years with losses at Dallas and at New Orleans.
Mathematicians can worry about the scenario that can get the Bucs an NFC wild-card spot today. But their regular-season finale against Carolina boils down to a chance for them to end the 2016 season on a positive note.
Is there really a big difference between finishing 9-7 or 8-8? Can a team feed off the momentum of a win in the finale until September?
Or will the Bucs' December swoon linger?
"The difference between 9-7 and 8-8, in my mind, is huge," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said.
"Are our players thinking about the Carolina Panthers and what they do, just like we were (in preparing) every other week? Are we thinking about next week, if we don't make the playoffs, where I'm going (in) my offseason? Because if they're doing that, they're wrong. So … it's about being a pro. It's about this week."
Here's what the Bucs have to play for:
• They can snap a two-game losing streak and achieve their first winning season since going 10-6 in 2010.
• They can go 4-2 in the NFC South and finish second in the division after living in the basement the past five years.
• They can reward fans with a rare win at Raymond James Stadium.
"I think everybody realizes you're only as good (as) and you're only judged by your last game," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said.
First-year head coach Dirk Koetter has his own definition of a successful season: "When a team that you're coaching comes as close as possible to playing up to that team's potential."
You could say that in some cases the Bucs have played beyond their potential, given that quarterback Jameis Winston is 22 years old and needs only 267 yards passing to eclipse Andrew Luck's NFL record for most yards passing in his first two seasons (8,196); that receiver Mike Evans has had his best year; and that tight end Cam Brate has become a fantasy football darling with eight touchdowns.
But finish with a loss today and end with a three-game losing streak to go with 2015's season-ending four-game losing streak, it would feel like finding a mealworm in the cupboard. You almost have to throw everything out.
Regardless of today's outcome, Winston said he would not consider the season a success.
"For the organization, for fans, a lot of people are happy," he said. "But the mentality of this team, our ultimate goal is to win playoff games, win Super Bowls. It's exciting … that we have a chance to have a winning season, but that's not something that we're aiming for at the beginning of the season."
You could argue that the Bucs could carry the momentum of 9-7 into the offseason. But every season is different. About 25 to 30 percent of the roster will be overhauled.
If past was prologue, Carolina would not have gone from 17-2 and Super Bowl 50 last season to 6-9 and last in the division this season.
Still, Monken said a Bucs victory today would amount to "stopping the bleeding."
"It's the same (as) winning a bowl game (in college) and not winning a bowl game," he said. "And there's so few teams in the NFL that will end the season on a win. Because if you make the playoffs, everybody but one ends on a loss and there's disappointment."
The Bucs have experienced a lot of valleys to go with the peak of a five-game winning streak this season: releasing tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins after a DUI arrest; handling the reaction of Evans sitting as a protest during the national anthem; benching Doug Martin for the Dec. 24 New Orleans game when informed the running back was facing a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs and Martin then leaving the team to, he said, immediately seek treatment.
"I've definitely learned a lot this season," Koetter said. "But as far as mistakes I make or don't make, I think those have been well documented, whether I agree with them all or not. It's definitely a learning curve.
"When I became a college coach for the first time, you think you're ready, and until you sit in that chair, you really don't know. And it's definitely the same in the NFL."
Maybe nothing is a stake today except another chance to win, something the Bucs haven't done very often.