The opportunity was there, and then it was gone.
It burst through the hole, quick and strong, and the Bucs could not tackle it. It hesitated for a moment, as if to tease them, then it was gone. It cut to the left and pulled away, and suddenly, the Bucs were playing a game of chase.
And there opportunity went, disappearing into the night.
So many things evaded the Bucs on Monday night. There had been the chance of success, and the possibility of seizing control in the NFC South, and the prospect of establishing themselves as a legitimate contender in front of a national audience.
In the end, the Bucs couldn't grasp any of it.
Any of the Panthers, either.
They were awful. They were terrible. Worst of all, they were defenseless.
For the Bucs, this was a stunning, alarming sight. It was bad enough that they lost a game of this magnitude 38-23, but this felt worse. Somewhere along the line, they also lost their identity.
Suddenly, they could not tackle. Suddenly, they could not cover. Suddenly, the trusted Bucs defense looked outnumbered.
Time and again, the Buc defenders would slide off DeAngelo Williams (186 yards) or Jonathan Stewart (115), and as they would lie scattered about the turf, a strange, out-of-place feeling would strike you. For so long now, the Bucs defenders have all been fast, and they have all been certain tacklers. And on their biggest night of the year, they were shredded for 299 yards rushing.
How does this happen? Oh, you could imagine the Bucs losing this game. In the NFC South, homefield is king (the four teams are 24-2 this year at home). But you figured it would come on a big pass to Steve Smith or a defensive play by Julius Peppers. Not like this. Not with the defense looking like those guys you saw in a Walter Payton highlight clip.
No one has gashed the Bucs like this. Not the Vikings' Adrian Peterson. Not the Falcons' Michael Turner. And, no, not the Panthers. Earlier in the season, the Panthers had only 40 yards. This time, Carolina had 292 in the final three quarters, and it might have been worse if coach John Fox hadn't shown a little mercy by trying to pass every now and then.
For the Bucs, this was a chance to put forth an argument that they were indeed among the NFL's big boys. A victory in this game and Tampa Bay would have been 10-3.
Instead, they wasted a great night by Jeff Garcia and a monster night by Antonio Bryant. That's a shame. The quarterback was in the doghouse earlier this year, and the receiver was in the outhouse last year, and on national television, Garcia had 321 yards and Bryant had 200.
And still, the Bucs lost.
Worse, their greatest strength now looks like a weakness.
Look, it isn't as if there weren't enough shortcomings to discuss. Take that botched first and goal from the 2 in the first half. The Bucs were 6 feet from the end zone, roughly the size of that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street in front of your house, and they couldn't get there. Again.
The red zone futility continues to be an unsettling part of this offense. Three shots from the 2 and the Bucs ended up with a yard and a field-goal attempt. Did you expect anything else?
And most days after, you could wonder about a running game that was unable to take advantage of the Panthers' run defense.
Today? Today it's going to be about the way the Bucs defense was exposed. Every running lane looked like an airport runway, and every series looked like the Oklahoma land rush. If it had been any worse, Tennessee officials would have called and taken back their offer to Monte Kiffin.
Here's the question: Was this a one-game aberration, or did the Panthers discover something? And is injured Jovan Haye really that big of a force?
We'll find out, won't we? How many times do you think Atlanta will give the ball to Turner this weekend? How many times do you think San Diego will give it to LaDainian Tomlinson?
That's the way the NFL works. If one team opens a wound, the rest of the league will take turns picking at the scab. You can expect other teams to run until the Bucs prove they can stop them.
Three games to go, and the season suddenly feels tenuous.
If the Bucs don't hang on, it could run away.