TAMPA — This is what happens to a young football team that digs itself out of a deep hole, learns to win on the road, wins a few in a row, wakes up to find itself without a losing record and smack dab in the middle of the race for the final NFL wild card spot.
The players feel like lighting a sparkler.
Then they realize they're holding the hot end.
That's what went down in the second half Sunday against the Colts. One minute the Bucs were leading 12-6 and nobody was blocking the road to the postseason. The next minute a 40-year-old quarterback — older than the Tampa Bay franchise — dropped an anvil on their heads.
Funny thing about expectations. When you've never had any, you have to learn how to handle them.
The 25-12 loss to Indianapolis and fossilized quarterback Matt Hasselbeck left the Bucs 5-6, though stunningly still only a game out of the final NFC wild card with five games to play, all against conference teams.
"There's no margin for error as we see it now," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "Yes this is the final stage of our growth, rebirth, whatever you want to call it is to finish on this backstretch. As you look at our season we went 1-3 the first quarter, 2-2 the second, we have an opportunity — no, it's a must — that we go 3-1 this third quarter finishing up with 4-0 in the last.
"We are in position. In November you want to get in position and now it's who gets hot at the end. We think we're going to be one of those teams. There's not a whole lot of doom and gloom around here. The last thing we need to see is that when you don't take care of business late this is what can happen. I'm of the school of thought that we are going to be one of those teams that's going to do this now, right when we need to."
Smith is right. The Bucs can't afford another hiccup. Not against the Falcons, Saints, Rams or Bears. The season finale is at Carolina which, barring a 15-0 record, might not have anything to play for and could roll out its junior varsity team.
That said, is it too much to ask of a team with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and a suspect defense to run the table when it has never won three games in a row?
"'It's play to play," tight end Cameron Brate said. "We really have to think about it like that because every game matters. You don't want to say it but you've got to win out, pretty much. You take it one game at a time and we think we're ready. We've been playing well and we've just got to learn from (Sunday) and move on."
The scary thing for the young Bucs is that every pimple they had this season popped up on their faces at the same time Sunday.
PENALTIES: The Bucs are first in the NFL with 109 accepted. They had 12 Sunday for 95 yards, none bigger than a flag on Kevin Pamphile for holding that wiped out a 2-yard touchdown run by Doug Martin and a defensive holding on Alterraun Verner that offset a fumble recovery.
BAD PLAY IN THE SECONDARY: Smith used six combinations of defensive backs in eight games before settling on cornerbacks Sterling Moore and Jude Adjei-Barimah. Moore gave up consecutive passes of 31 and 19 yards in the third quarter Sunday, the last to T.Y. Hilton for a touchdown. Adjei-Barimah was targeted 11 times, surrendering eight catches for 71 yards and a score. He also missed three tackles.
DROPPED PASSES: Mike Evans dropped four passes against Houston, six against the Giants and a huge one inside the 10-yard line at Indianapolis. On the next play, Connor Barth missed a 54-yard field goal. "I'm not going to make excuses. I've got to catch it," Evans said.
Smith was asked what the trick is to making his team have confidence to take the final step and play well down the stretch of the season.
"There's no trick to it," Smith said. "I think when you have made progress and you're a good football team you get to a point where you know and there's no room for error that those things don't happen anymore when they can't. It's a must that you get it right for the football team. I think that our players know that and they'll get it right for the football team."
At least, that what he expects.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.