TAMPA — The pre-game handshake took place near midfield, just two NFL head coaches whose teams seemed headed in different directions when Sunday began.
A year earlier, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was 15-1 in a season that ended with a Super Bowl 50 loss to Denver. He had been to the league's mountaintop, has an appreciation for the climb and — with only six wins this season — the steep fall.
So before the Bucs' 17-16 victory over the Panthers — before the afternoon and season ended when Cam Newton's two-point conversion pass failed when tight end Greg Olsen slipped in the end zone — Rivera gave Dirk Koetter perspective on the Bucs' first winning season since 2010.
"Coach Rivera is a guy that I've admired for a long time, going back to his playing days and what he's done in Carolina," Koetter said, "and he said, 'It doesn't happen overnight.'
"I mentioned to some of you the other day that I believe a team is judged by how close they come to achieving up to their talent level. And I'll be honest with you, I think this team did a pretty good job in that area.''
Koetter said he was worried about how his team would play. Last week's loss at New Orleans all but knocked the Bucs out of the playoffs. Then came the news of running back Doug Martin's suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Koetter had to wonder if players were checking flight schedules for the Bahamas.
"It's just human nature, you're fighting human nature that these guys are going to be thinking about what's next," Koetter said.
The defense was the story Sunday. It had to be. The Bucs intercepted Newton three times — a pick-six by ageless cornerback Brent Grimes and two by safety Keith Tandy.
"I was very, very, very proud the way our defense fought and competed (Sunday)," Koetter said. "I think that says a lot. We got a really good young group to build around and we made a lot of improvement today.''
The Bucs offense mustered a field goal on its first drive and not much else until Winston tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans on a scramble play for a 17-10 lead with 3:13 to play.
"Overall, extremely frustrating day on offense,'' Koetter said.
When the Bucs needed a stop, they couldn't get it. Newton connected with receiver Kelvin Benjamin on a 47-yard pass play, then found the former FSU standout and Winston teammate in the end zone with a 5-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds remaining.
"Riverboat Ron" didn't hesitate to go for two and the win. "We didn't come to do anything but win,'' Rivera said.
But Olsen slipped on the painted grass in the south end zone and Newton's pass bounced off safety Bradley McDougald's shoulder. The Bucs recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
In the days ahead, there will be post-mortems on why this Bucs season died short of the playoffs again, nine years and counting. But Koetter's team did fight to the last play.
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What did the game mean?
Rookie defensive end Noah Spence re-dislocated his shoulder, popped it back into the socket himself, then finished the game.
Long snapper Andrew DePaola tore his ACL.
Newton re-injured his shoulder but wouldn't come out.
Receiver Russell Shepard was blind-sided by a vicious hit by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis while Winston was being sacked. ("That's bush league to show that play up on the screen,'' Rivera said. "What, are we trying to incite it?'')
Effort was never the problem. What Tampa Bay lacked was more playmakers on offense. On Sunday, Winston had Evans, Adam Humphries and Jacquizz Rodgers — that's it. The Bucs could run their offense in a phone booth.
But, as Rivera says, it's a process.
"We want to make the playoffs,'' Winston said. "And that's going to be our normal pretty soon.''