NEW ORLEANS — The mathematical swing is easier to explain. The Bucs blew an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, lost it in the fifth quarter and set off a celebration in the French Quarter after their 37-31 overtime loss to the Saints on Sunday.
But the emotional collapse was just as devastating, and the psychological breakdowns were what Bucs players had trouble articulating as they dressed to leave the Superdome.
"There's no excuse on our end why we didn't win this game," cornerback Alterraun Verner said. "The offense is probably not going to blame us. They're probably going to say they should've made another play. But there's no way they put up 31 points and kept us in the game the way they did and we don't finish it.
"That's supposed to be our calling card. We're supposed to carry this team, and we didn't finish today. Even in overtime — even if we give up a field goal and give our offense a chance to score — and we didn't. That's poor on us."
Instead, Saints running back Khiry Robinson bulldozed over safeties Bradley McDougald and Mark Barron on his way to the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown run with 9:24 left in overtime to complete the comeback.
Robinson's run capped an 80-yard drive after the Bucs lost the coin toss. Under overtime rules, had the Bucs (1-4) held the Saints to a field goal, they would have had at least one offensive possession to win or tie. But giving up a touchdown at the start of overtime ends the game.
It shouldn't have come to that. Tampa Bay led 31-20 with 9:28 left in regulation but the Saints got a touchdown (failing on a two-point conversion), safety and field goal to tie it.
The Saints' Drew Brees passed for 371 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he was intercepted three times, including by Verner with 16 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Even so, the defense simply couldn't get off the field, and a penalty for illegal use of hands on cornerback Johnthan Banks extended the Saints drive in overtime after a third-down incompletion.
"I thought we were off the field," Banks said. "I didn't see (the flag) coming. I was running toward the huddle. They made the call. We have to live with it."
The Bucs wasted a pretty good effort by the offense and Mike Glennon, who passed for 249 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. After trailing 13-0 until late in the second quarter, the Bucs rallied for 24 unanswered points. And they still led 31-20 until Saints running back Pierre Thomas scored on a 27-yard touchdown pass with 9:28 left.
The two-point conversion pass failed, but the Saints cut the lead to 31-28 when Glennon was sacked for a safety by linebacker Junior Galette. That completed a series in which the Bucs had a holding penalty, a wayward shotgun snap that bounced off receiver Vincent Jackson as he ran in motion (recovered at the Bucs 2 by Glennon), a delay of game penalty and a false start penalty.
The Bucs were flagged 15 times for 113 yards, their most in any game since Week 2 of 2003. That was four head coaches ago.
"There's no other way around it. You're up by 11, and with our defense, you win the football game," coach Lovie Smith said. "It's as simple as that. You don't let them score any more.
"Whenever you get up like that on the road, you've got to be able to finish the job."
The Bucs knew Brees was capable of rallying the Saints. But under Sean Payton, it was only the second time they had come back after trailing by 10 or more in the fourth quarter to win.
And they did it without All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who took a hard hit in the first quarter but later returned. He then made a catch on his first play back but absorbed another hard hit from safety Major Wright. About halfway through the second quarter, Graham went to the locker room and did not return. The team said it was a sprained right shoulder.
The Bucs needed a turnaround of their own Sunday. It began with Patrick Murray's 55-yard field goal with 1:54 left in the first half and Banks' interception a few plays later. Glennon hit Louis Murphy for a 20-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left to cut the Saints' halftime lead to 13-10.
The Bucs poured it on in the third quarter. Bobby Rainey scored on a touchdown run. And three plays later, linebacker Danny Lansanah picked off Brees and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown and a 24-13 lead. It was Lansanah's second pick-six in five games this season.
A week ago, the defense bailed Glennon out, getting him the ball back against the Steelers to set up his last-second winning touchdown pass. On Sunday, he had lots of teammates to commiserate with.
"We're not where we want to be," Glennon said. "Our record says that. We're getting better, but better isn't what you want to be."