It's true, the Bucs are still alive in the playoff race. But with the way things are going, they feel a lot like the guy who jumps out of a skyscraper and each time he falls past another floor has a recurring thought. So far, so good. The 41-24 loss Sunday to the Chargers did not mathematically end the Bucs' season. Tampa Bay (9-6) can still earn the No. 6 seed in the NFC on Sunday with a win at home over Oakland and a loss by Dallas (9-6) at Philadelphia (8-6-1). But after sustaining their third straight defeat — while yielding the most points in a game in nine years — scoreboard watching is not what the Bucs planned on doing. "It (stinks)," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "It's one of those things that when you have things in your hands, you've got to take advantage of it. So now we've got to wait and watch and hope that other teams don't play well down the stretch.
"Hopefully, it works out our way, but it's tough. It's tough to sit there and watch and wait."
Just 20 days ago, the Bucs were 9-3, matching their best 12-game start, with an NFC South Division title, first-round bye and homefield advantage in play.
But the defensive collapse, which began when it was first reported that coordinator Monte Kiffin would join son Lane at the University of Tennessee, has haunted the Bucs at Carolina, at Atlanta and Sunday against San Diego.
Philip Rivers threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns, two to tight end Antonio Gates.
The Bucs fought to stay in the game. Quarterback Jeff Garcia ran for a third-quarter touchdown and soon after hit Antonio Bryant for a 71-yard touchdown to give Tampa Bay a 24-20 lead.
But Rivers took over after that, throwing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and Antoine Cason returned an interception 59 yards for another. The 41 points allowed were the most since a 45-0 loss to the Raiders on Dec. 19, 1999.
So what happened? How has one of the biggest collapses in franchise history occurred?
It starts with the defense.
Tampa Bay ran into a buzz saw at Carolina as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart helped the Panthers rush for 299 yards and four touchdowns.
Injuries to defensive tackles Chris Hovan, who did not play at Atlanta, and Jovan Haye, who was limited to a handful of snaps against the Falcons, contributed.
Sunday, Rivers was rarely under pressure and picked apart a secondary missing safety Jermaine Phillips, who is out for the season with a broken right arm.
"Can I harness my inner Jim Mora? We've got to win a game. Period," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "The hell with the playoffs. We've got to win a game. We've got Oakland next week. That's all we can worry about. I don't know our scenarios. I have no idea at this point. We just have to win a football game.
"If enough guys are like me, then they're (ticked) off. I'm (ticked) off."
It's the second straight season the Bucs have saved their worst for December. Tampa Bay, which essentially locked up the NFC South before the final month last season, dropped four of its final five games, including the wild-card game to the Giants.
Four hours after losing to the Chargers (7-8), who earned a showdown for the AFC West title with the Broncos, the Bucs got some help.
The Redskins held on to defeat the Eagles 10-3 when receiver Reggie Brown was tackled 1 yard shy of the tying touchdown on the final play of the game.
Even if the Bucs slipped into the playoffs this season, what kind of run can they make?
"We've got to play better to get in the tournament and to do anything in the tournament," said coach Jon Gruden, whose teams are 10-19 in December and January since winning the Super Bowl after the 2002 season. "We've got to play better. We've got to coach better, and certainly I'm responsible for that. I'm disappointed for our players and our fans. We'll leave it at that.
"I told the team we're a 9-6 football team. I want them to learn from this. I'm proud of them for the effort. But we've got to learn from this, and when you have an opportunity to be in these big games down the stretch, we've got to play better."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.