The rut of sluggish starts and weak finishes continues.
TAMPA - The slow start. The agonizing penalties. The costly turnovers. The bad breaks. The dramatic comeback.
And then, inexplicably, the loss in the final minutes.
This is the blueprint for so many games, so many bitter losses.
Against the Carolina Panthers, twice. Against the Indianapolis Colts. Against the Saints. Then the Jaguars.
Now Saturday, with playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Bucs did it again.
"It was only supposed to happen this way," defensive end Simeon Rice said. "This is the way it should have happened. These are the habits we've brought on ourselves and it's symbolic of what this season has been.
"Once you create habits, they follow you. This is the pattern of our season. This game is indicative of how things have been. We're a year removed from the Super Bowl, the players are the same, but the mentality is different. It's easy to see."
For a team stacked with veterans who won it all 11 months ago, the results this season have been amazingly disappointing.
Against the Falcons, a team they had beaten six straight times, the Bucs remained true to the pattern of most of their losses, they came out of the locker room as if they were running in sand - quicksand.
The league's third-ranked defense let the Falcons march 56 yards on 11 plays and go ahead 3-0 on a 26-yard Jay Feely field goal.
The Bucs had no immediate reply, punted on theirfirst possession and quarterback Brad Johnson threw an interception on their next series. The pick was returned to the Bucs 6, and Michael Vick threw to Alge Crumpler for the score two plays later. "Some way, somehow, we have to start fast," veteran receiver Keenan McCardell said. "That's how it should be, and we realize that as a team. We have to get going, there's no way we should start out that way."
The repeated slow starts have been compounded by turnovers and avoidable penalties. Johnson uncharacteristically threw four interceptions in the first half that led to 24 points.
But as they did against the Panthers and Saints, the Bucs rallied just when fans started heading for the exits.
They scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, erasing a 30-7 deficit. But in a fashion eerily similar to the home loss to the Panthers on Sept. 14, the offense's confidence was shattered by one play. The Bucs missed the two-point conversion that would have tied the score.
It's not like the Bucs weren't in close games last season. They had their share. But things clearly are different in 2003.
"Last year, we didn't make the turnovers, we didn't make the stupid penalties," tight end Ken Dilger said. "(Saturday) we had both. We gave up a big play, got a couple penalties, then got one on special teams which brought back a great return. It's been all year. We have tried to fight through it, but it seems like it sneaks up and bites us in the butt."
And it's not all on the offense. The defense, which features three Pro Bowl selections and a number of other elite defenders, was not able to control the Falcons running attack like it did twice last season. It was not able to force turnovers, like it did twice last season. And it wasn't able to sack Vick, like it also did twice last season.
"I can't say what it all means at this point," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "I know we're not going to the playoffs, and that's all that matters, microcosm or not. Each game is an individual game and all we can do is be professional and try to win each game."
Added safety John Lynch: "I felt like this would be the one. We rallied a bunch this year, just to fall short and again that was the case today. I think we showed a lot of resolve, to come back and give ourselves a chance. But we let them have too much early and that came back to bite us."