Eleven times in the past 22 months, crestfallen Bucs fans exited Raymond James Stadium as if they had attended a funeral.
Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, they witnessed either a blowout or a blown lead. Embarrassment, dejection, exasperation — they've all been as palpable as the festering fragrance of sweat, sunscreen, beer and pork nachos that circulates through the concourses.
At last, that streak of Sunday misery is over. The Bucs snapped it when they rallied to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars 38-31 yesterday to improve to 2-3.
Sure, this wasn't a win that vaulted the Bucs into the NFC South lead or into playoff contention. But even so, glee finally eclipsed grief, from the depths of the stadium — where a jubilant Jason Licht, the Bucs general manager, stopped his car on his way out to high-five security employees — to the parking lots.
The first win at home during the Lovie Smith era was one famished fans wanted to savor. An hour and a half after the game ended, stragglers still high off the thrill of victory milled about along Tampa Bay Boulevard and marveled at the Bucs' sudden aptitude for sacking the quarterback, forcing turnovers and kicking field goals.
"Wow," said Nick Vargas, 19, a season-ticket holder since last season. "I lost my voice cheering for them. That was awesome. It was good to finally wave goodbye to all the opposing team's fans."
Jehmar Blackwell, 28, makes one trip every season to Tampa from Plainfield, N.J. Last season, he attended the 19-13 overtime loss to the Vikings, one of six games in which the Bucs let a fourth-quarter lead slip away.
"I was expecting us to have the big lead, which we did in the middle of the second (quarter)," said Blackwell, clad in a Warren Sapp jersey, "and I expected us to find a way to lose, like we usually do."
When the Jaguars overcame a 20-7 deficit and took a 24-20 lead with about three minutes left in the third quarter, Blackwell and every fan who has followed the Bucs' misadventures shared the same thought:
"Here we go again."
After the Bucs relinquished the lead, they began their next possession with an incomplete pass, a penalty and a deflected pass. When they came to the line on third-and-15, it seemed as though the game hung in the balance. Their win probability had plummeted from a peak of 92.7 percent when they took the 20-7 lead in the second quarter to 23.9 percent.
Then the Bucs did something very un-Bucs: They didn't self-destruct. Thanks to some key blocks from guard Kevin Pamphile (who started in place of the injured Logan Mankins) and receiver Vincent Jackson, running back Charles Sims took a Jameis Winston screen pass 56 yards to the Jacksonville 29-yard line.
The Bucs didn't ask much of their rookie quarterback — just short, simple passes. On throws inside 10 yards, Winston was nearly perfect, completing eight of nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. Seven of his 19 passes (36.8 percent) went to his running backs, the most he has targeted them in a game this season.
While he didn't throw deep often, he tried going down the field on consecutive plays after Sims' catch. Though both attempts fell incomplete, the Bucs kicked a field goal, Connor Barth's third of the afternoon, to make it a one-point game — hardly "settling" considering the inauspicious start to the drive and the team's recent kicking troubles. Around here, field goals aren't taken for granted anymore; they get standing ovations.
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The field goal improved the Bucs' win probability to 48 percent, but the next play swung the game in their favor for good. On a running back pitch, the Jaguars failed to block Bucs defensive end George Johnson, who met rookie Corey Grant in the backfield and forced a fumble.
Jacquies Smith fell on the ball as it rolled toward the end zone and then lunged forward for the go-ahead score, which boosted Tampa Bay's chances of winning to 86.9 percent.
Last week, the Bucs were on the wrong end of a third-quarter fumble return when tight end Ed Dickson plucked the ball out of the air and took it 57 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. While Smith's touchdown wasn't the game winner, the Bucs never surrendered the lead again.
The fumble was the defense's second takeaway of the game. The first was safety Bradley McDougald's second-quarter interception of a Blake Bortles pass intended for tight end Marcedes Lewis. McDougald did an excellent job of cutting underneath Lewis' out route, but it was a throw Bortles never should have made. Let's take a closer look.
Before the snap, the Jaguars motion receiver Allen Hurns from the left side of the field to the right.
Cornerback Tim Jennings picks him up as he runs to the outside, but no one picks up Allen Robinson, who runs free over the middle. Bortles doesn't see him and misses not only a huge gain but also a potential touchdown, as the only man Robinson has to beat is safety Chris Conte.
The Bucs punish the Jaguars further by marching 41 yards on their next six plays for a touchdown.
Bortles also forced a throw to Lewis in the third quarter. On a third-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 13, Lewis ran to the middle of the field and drew the attention of both Bucs safeties, Major Wright and McDougald.
A pump fake and throw to an open Robinson probably would have gotten the Jaguars a touchdown and a 21-20 lead. Instead, Bortles overthrew Lewis and the Jaguars kicked a field goal that cut their six-point deficit in half.
Despite Bortles' errors, he still managed to rack up 303 passing yards and four touchdowns, two more than he had thrown in any of his previous 17 starts. While it might not have been a complete game from the Bucs, they emerged from a home game able to point to more positives than at any point during Lovie Smith's tenure.
"We're disappointed in what's happened this year for us, this 2015 team," he said after the game. "Disappointment more because we feel like we're a good football team. That team out there at times is pretty good, that can play with anybody around, so that part is disappointing. And of course for our fans. They were outstanding today. They've been outstanding every home game we've had around here. And it's good for them to go home and be able celebrate."
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.