Fourth quarters don't lie. If a football team has any questions about what it is, and about what it is not, fourth quarters are designed to answer them.
First quarters can fool you, and second quarters can be deceptive, and third quarters are known to out-and-out lie. But the NFL is a fourth-quarter league, and those last 15 minutes of football can batter a team into reality.
In particular, the fourth quarter said this to the Bucs on Sunday:
Wow, are you guys bad.
For three quarters there might have been a bit of a question about that this time. The Bucs actually held a lead into the fourth quarter, the first time that has happened since mid October.
As strange as it might sound, victory was not out of the question. The defense was keeping the Titans out of the end zone — though it should be pointed out that the Titans helped — the offense had the running game going, and for the time being, it was raining water instead of penalty flags.
Then everything unraveled, the way it usually does with struggling football teams. Just like that, the defense couldn't tackle, and the offense couldn't score, and the penalties kicked in, and Captain Comeback turned into Major Turnover.
Yep, these were the Bucs, all right. You probably recognized them.
This time they lost 23-17 to a Tennessee team that frankly isn't any better than the Bucs. If you didn't know the difference, you probably thought you were watching the Peach Bowl, only this time it was played in a car wash.
In other words, you can't blame this one on the schedule, not after the Bucs turned all 1986 in the final quarter. Not after the Bucs came from ahead to lose their fifth straight game (and sixth out of seven) and fall to 4-7 on the season.
In some ways this was the Bucs' most disappointing loss of the season, because these were the most winnable of circumstances.
They didn't need anything Immaculate. They didn't need a miracle. All they needed was one defensive stop in the fourth quarter, or one offensive drive. One impact play on either side of the ball and Tampa Bay could have stopped the bleeding, at least temporarily. Erase one stupid penalty here or one missed tackle there and the Bucs could have eased their pain for a week.
On the other hand, the importance of the fourth quarter is nothing new to the NFL. Good teams almost always come from behind, and then they talk about what character and composure and resiliency it took to pull it off.
Bad teams? In crunch time, bad teams get crunched. They draw penalties, and they surrender touchdowns, and they fail to convert on fourth and inches, and they lose wide receivers on fourth and 2, and officials don't measure for a first down when it's close.
The Bucs should know this as well as anyone. Last year they were terrific in the fourth quarter, and because of it, they kept winning games exactly like this one. Cleveland. Cincinnati. St. Louis. Arizona. Washington. Someone made a tackle. Someone scored a touchdown.
But not now. Not here.
In the fourth quarter, Tennessee had the ball for four drives. It scored on three and ran out the clock on the last one.
In the fourth quarter, Tennessee rushed for 82 yards and a 6.9 average.
In the fourth quarter, Matt Hasselbeck hit 5 of 8 passes for 38 yards, including the winning touchdown on a fourth-and-2 play. On his final throw, it seemed he could have had an hour to throw.
In the fourth quarter, the Bucs had three drives. The first one ended when they were called for three penalties in five snaps. The second ended when Freeman threw an interception that never had a chance to be a reception. The third ended when Freeman fumbled the ball, then picked it up and was stopped on fourth and 1. It was the triple crown of bad offense.
Time was, these were the situation that defined Freeman. He was the king of the fourth quarter, and he seemed to have a knack for snatching away a game from the other team in the final seconds. In the final 21/2 minutes Sunday, however, Freeman had two chances to rescue his team, and he failed both times.
No, no quarterback pulls his team out in the fourth quarter every time. But Freeman has had four shots at a comeback this year, and he has succeeded once. It's another instance where this team has not improved on last year's performance.
Yeah, yeah. You could blame this on turnovers if you want, because the Bucs had five. On the other hand, the Titans had four. You could blame it on an official who wouldn't measure before a fourth-and-1 play at the end. On the other hand, the Bucs couldn't even handle the center snap on the ensuing play.
It has been that way for a while now. Over the past seven games the Bucs have four games where they have scored one offensive touchdown or less.
Because of it? This year's "Race to 10" will go into next year.
Just asking, but do you think anyone is up for "Sprinting to Six?"