TAMPA - Well, that should end all the talk about an undefeated season, huh?
The Bucs tripped over their kudos Sunday evening. One minute, they were the darlings of the NFL, riding on the homecoming float while all the critics tossed rose petals. Then, wouldn't you know it, they were buried in their own compliments.
Turns out, the '72 Dolphins can stand down.
The Super Bowl engravers can go to lunch.
And, for the time being, the Hall of Fame probably can withhold expansion of the building.
Isn't this a kick in the pants?
The Bucs aren't perfect, after all.
For the past few months, you might have believed they were. Everyone loved the Bucs, it seemed, and no one could praise them enough. From the sound of it, the Bucs weren't trying to win their second Super Bowl; they were merely trying to win their next in a series.
From the sounds from the television commentators, the Bucs were going to play in the Super Bowl, and everyone else was playing for the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. The only problem was remembering how many "g's" in juggernaut.
In one homely, sloppy afternoon, onlookers were reminded of every possible reason the Bucs might be derailed like 30 of the 37 Super Bowl winners have been. If you thought this was a sure thing, if you forgot how the NFL is one difficult week after another, this was your wake-up call. Theirs, too.
How can the Bucs fail to repeat?
They can stumble because of injury, such as the one that will keep receiver Joe Jurevicius out for at least a month with a sprained right knee.
They can tumble because of their kicking teams, which remain as organized as shoppers at a mall opening.
They can bumble because of not playing smart, which has something to do with the 17 penalties called (not counting another six which were declined or were offsetting).
And they can crumble because of that familiar old eyesore called the offensive line.
You remember the offensive line, right? Today, it needs to be peeled from the bottom of the cleats of Julius Peppers and company. No, the brash front four of the Panthers isn't as good as the defensive line of the Bucs. On the other hand, it's much better than the offensive line.
The Bucs offensive line spent the entire game clutching, grabbing and caving in. Go on: Complain about the silly penalties, such as the one on Derrick Brooks for retaliating, or the one on Warren Sapp for taunting. The majority of the penalties, however, were on the offensive line, and many of them seemed to come out of realizing it was overmatched.
For instance, Kenyatta Walker had two holding penalties and a personal foul. That's as many tackles as Sapp and Anthony McFarland combined.
In other words, the line looked a lot like last year's line looked at this time, which left the offense looking a lot like it looked at this time, and it made the mountain ahead look just as tall.
Gee. Don't you hate to get poked in the reality?
Not to mention being kicked in the mortality.
And punched in the vulnerability.
Then there are the special teams, Breakdown Inc. Since when did the Panthers' Kris Jenkins turn into an NBA center, swatting field goals into the second row the way Bill Russell used to treat soft shots at the basket? Not only that, but the Carolina returns outgained the Bucs by 101 yards. The Bucs are good, but giving up two football fields to penalties and another one to returns is tough to overcome.
That's the thing about the NFL. Defeats breed questions, and for the first time in a long time in Tampa Bay, it's time to ask them.
What can trip up the Bucs?
They can lose if another team blossoms at the right time. Carolina had a bit of that look. The Panthers were nasty, and aggressive, and they didn't back off. They can lose if other teams can run on them. That happened, too. Stephen Davis ran for 142 yards, and there were times he seemed to have a secret route through the right side of the defensive line.
They can lose if they get conservative at the wrong times. That happened Sunday, too. Remember the Bucs' field goal in the third period, how close to the vest they played that drive? Remember the third-and-15 call in overtime when the Bucs were in Panthers territory?
They can lose because they're mortal, in spite of what you've heard.
Who knows? Maybe the Bucs need to spend some time without people writing poems about their sturdy profiles. Maybe everyone needs to step back and realize there are some things to overcome this year, too.
That's the thing about the Bucs. They seem to think proving everyone wrong is more fun than proving everyone right. They've always seemed to perform a little better with a chip on their shoulder.
After a game like this, this is where you find your comfort.
Any day now, that chip is bound to grow back.