It all looked pretty good for a while. At one point, there even was a decision to make on how big of a lead to take. Then, just before they were halfway finished, the Bucs fell apart.
Sounds kind of like Tampa Bay's season, huh?
It may be purely coincidental, but the Bucs' 35-13 loss Sunday followed that far-too-familiar scenario. In losing for the fourth time in five games after its hopeful 5-2 start, Tampa Bay saw a 2:51 span late in the first half doom its most meaningful game in 13 seasons.
"We play a good ballgame for about 25 minutes of the first half, then all hell breaks loose," said Bucs defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman, whose unit had not surrendered more than 27 points this season. "From then on we couldn't seem to do anything.
"I think our whole football team, it's like the air came out of the tires. After that one play (a 54-yard scoring bomb to wide-open Green Bay receiver Robert Brooks, giving the Packers a 14-10 lead), we didn't play worth a damn all day. Either you want to win or you don't want to win."
The Bucs came to frosty Green Bay intent on winning and earning a tie for the NFC Central lead entering December. They left 6-6, tied with Minnesota and Detroit for third (or last) place in the division, one game behind Chicago (7-5) and two back of the pace-setting Packers (8-4).
Tampa Bay took a 10-7 advantage on a 19-yard Michael Husted field goal with 3:29 remaining in the first half. But in less than three minutes, the Bucs and their chances disappeared as the Packers struck for a pair of three-play touchdown drives and a 21-10 lead with 38 seconds left in the half.
Suddenly, the pregame talk of a breakthrough win for Tampa Bay was replaced by questions about what happened just before the break.
"We were playing for first place in our division," said Bucs tight end Jackie Harris, who returned to his former NFL home and caught a career-high 10 passes for 122 yards. "How can (my day) mean anything? This was a chance, late in the season, a great opportunity, and we just let it slip away."
The Bucs kept a number of streaks alive against Green Bay, none worth bragging about. Despite a career day from quarterback Trent Dilfer, who set personal highs in completions (28), attempts (49) and yards (324), Tampa Bay for the eighth straight game was without a touchdown pass (236 consecutive scoreless attempts).
The defeat also means Tampa Bay has yet to end its 12-year run of double-digit losses, not to mention its dubious distinction of having never won in temperatures 42 degrees or cooler. Despite nearly 3 inches of snow that fell in the Green Bay area early Sunday morning, the weather really wasn't a factor. The temperature at kickoff was 34 degrees with a 9 mph wind.
It was the Packers, who have not held first place alone this late in a season since 1972, who showed the ability to heat up quickly. Green Bay's first four scoring drives consumed four, three, three and four plays, and took a combined 6:17. By comparison, the plodding Bucs had field goal drives of 8:19 and 6:29.
"It's disheartening," Dilfer said. "To work so hard, come off, take a break, and boom, they're down there in the red zone already."
Green Bay was led by quarterback Brett Favre, whose 16-of-24, 267-yard day included three touchdown passes, and Brooks, the Sterling Sharpe replacement who caught two of those scores (54 and 3 yards) to go with his team-high six catches for 114 yards.
Breakdowns in the secondary were the order of the day for Tampa Bay. Cornerback Martin Mayhew was beaten badly on Brooks' 54-yard touchdown catch, and Favre's scrambling caused more than one defender to overcommit.
For the Bucs, who have yet to put together both phases of their offense on the same day, their season-best passing day was offset by a season-worst rushing performance. Citing a soggy field and a solid Packers defense, the Bucs ran 18 times for just 30 yards.
Running back Errict Rhett began the day needing 104 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark. Now he needs 105. Rhett's 13-carry, minus-1 yard showing spoke volumes.
"I watched the film this week and I knew it would be difficult running the ball," said Rhett, who scored Tampa Bay's touchdown on a 1-yard second-quarter dive. "But I at least thought we'd get some yardage. There was absolutely nowhere to run."
Ironically, Tampa Bay braved the weather, but wasn't brave enough to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal from the 1 with the score tied at 7. Instead, after Green Bay stuffed Rhett on second and third down from the 1, coach Sam Wyche opted for Husted's 19-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead with 3:29 left in the half.
After the Packers scored twice in the next 2:51, making Tampa Bay's conservative approach look timid, Wyche was asked why he had played it safe and sorry.
"We're on the road. We're tied up," he said. "It's a close game. We get the points. It's logical."
A number of Bucs, including Dilfer, Alvin Harper and Paul Gruber, agreed that they all wanted to go for the touchdown. But none went so far as to say Wyche's call was the wrong one.
"I figured we'd go for three, because we needed to get points on the board," Harper said. "The guys wanted to go for it so bad. And it was like, "Oh, man, we should have went for it because I know we would have got it.' But if they stop us on fourth down and they get the ball, that just crushes us."
Whether this latest Tampa Bay defeat snuffs out any realistic playoff hopes is a question one Buc says can't be answered.
"It's going to be tougher, but we've got to hang in there," strong safety Kenny Gant said. "I think we're going to have to run the table. If we run the table the last four weeks, maybe something good will come out of it.
"I don't think any of these guys gave up today, and I don't think they've given up on the season."
Running down opponents
When Errict Rhett is able to run the ball and the Bucs are able to control the clock, things work out well. How success links to Rhett's number of attempts:
Rhett's carries Average score
More than 20 times Bucs 18.0, opponents 16.1
Fewer than 20 times Bucs 8.7, opponents 26.3
In the second quarter, the Bucs seemed in control. Then they did not. A recap:
3:29 remaining: Bucs settle for a field goal on fourth and 1 after being stopped from the 1 on two straight plays. Bucs lead 10-7.
2:12 remaining: Packers score in three plays and 77 seconds to take a 14-10 lead.
1:41 remaining: Bucs punt after three plays lose 2 yards.
:38 remaining: Packers score in three plays and 63 seconds to increase their lead to 21-10.