CHICAGO -- A few weeks ago, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith playfully said that his team would make an "epic climb" at some point.
You want epic?
This time, you couldn't see it coming. This time, the Bucs started fast and appeared to be cruising to a second straight win.
What happened? The third quarter happened. After dominating the first half and leading 10-0, the Bucs suddenly crumbled in spectacular fashion. They gave up 21 points in the third quarter, and it was the literal definition of "gave" them up.
It started harmlessly enough. The Bucs received the second-half kickoff and ran three plays before punting. That's when a Chicago offense that had been held to 68 yards in the first half suddenly came to life. The Bears put together a quick touchdown drive to cut the lead to 10-7.
"The plan wasn't to start off the second half that way," Smith said. "And once we got ourselves in the hole a little bit, we needed to regroup right there, and we didn't."
Once the hole opened, it just kept getting wider very quickly.
Quarterback Josh McCown, who had played so well in last Sunday's victory at Washington, suddenly turned into a turnover machine. He held the ball way too long on a scramble that resulted in a sack/fumble by Chicago's David Bass. That gave the Bears the ball at Tampa Bay's 13-yard line. On the next play, Matt Forte ran for a touchdown that put the Bears ahead to stay.
"It was unfortunate," McCown said. "The ball goes off of Chuck's hands and ends up in their [hands]. Those two right there back-to-back hurt us. It's tough, but we've got to do a better job managing it."
Three plays later, Forte scored again. The lightning-quick chain of events in the third quarter decided the game and put the Bucs back to where they were before their victory in Washington.
Smith has been talking about how his team is improving and how he believes the Bucs are ready to turn the corner. And for 30 minutes, it looked like the Bucs were playing exactly the style he likes. They were putting a good rush on quarterback Jay Cutler and moving the ball in the passing game.
"We did it for the first half," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We have to do it the whole game. We didn't do it enough. We have to be more consistent and do it the entire game."
The Bucs ended the game with four turnovers. They came up with only one takeaway.
"It's tough to win football games when you lose the turnover ratio," Smith said.
The irony is that the Bears won by playing the way they often did when Smith was the coach in Chicago for nine years. But this wasn't a day for reflection.
"I really wasn't into family reunions or anything like that today," Smith said. "I have lifetime friends here. I don't really need a game to see them. We won a lot of games here at Soldier Field. A lot of great memories. But this is a bad memory right now."
Smith's right. His time in Chicago is in the past and no longer matters. His job now is to turn the Bucs around. You can't do that when you're having disastrous quarters.