ATLANTA, Ga. -- For weeks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers players vowed to keep fighting. Even amid a five-game losing streak, they promised not to give up. When starting quarterback Jameis Winston went down with a shoulder injury, they rallied behind veteran backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, stopping that losing streak by winning two in a row.
"S---, that was a must-win and any time you don't win a game like that, it hurts," said running back Jacquizz Rodgers.
"This one hurts," said Fitzpatrick.
Mathematically, they won't be bettering last season's 9-7 record and at 0-3 in the NFC South, they have no business and virtually no chance of being in playoffs. Plus, their next three opponents -- the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and the Falcons again -- were all in the playoffs last season. Even with Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers out for the season, any game played on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field is no "gimme game."
To observers, the fact that this thing was over was evident weeks ago. But those with the problem are always the last to acknowledge it. Denial and pride are powerful things that can create a false sense of reality. Granted, players haven't necessarily had their heads in the clouds. Anyone walking inside One Buc Place could feel the tension. They just tried to keep things as positive as possible.
"Like earlier in the week, people don't need to be saying that we turned the corner. We've got a lot of work to do and it showed today," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
They remained mostly positive because they didn't have a choice. And because it was still possible. Now? Not so much.
"I'm upset right now," said a blank-faced Mike Evans. "But I'll get over it."
The look on Evans' face suggested that it might take some time. At 24, at least time is on his side.
McCoy, on the other hand, is in his ninth season and turns 30 in February. He's been to five Pro Bowls but has yet to play in a postseason game. Ever.
This was a team that many pegged to win the division -- the Bucs' first formidable threat to do so since really 2007, unless you count the 10-win team from 2010 that snuck up on everyone. Instead of reaching the postseason for the first time in a decade, the Bucs have faded into oblivion with five games still to be played.
That doesn't sit well. It can't. Not when the Bucs have been outscored in three division games 81-33.
They don't get to wave the white flag because their starting quarterback has gone down with an injury, not when Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing relatively well and has actually been more efficient than Winston.
"We competed down until the end," said cornerback Brent Grimes. "That's something to hang our hat on, but we're gonna be upset about this. It's a loss. We wanted to win this game -- we were on a streak -- against a division rival, [but] we lost. We've got to learn from it and go on to the next week."
What can they learn from this? That's what every coach, every front office executive, every player and even ownership should be asking themselves these next few days.
For the coaching staff, why, for three years now, has this offense consistently only been able to muster 20 points a game? A large amount of resources were pumped into making this offense not just a talented group, but one of the most potent offenses in the league, a unit that could put up 38 points and win shootouts.
On defense, why did they employ single coverage on Julio Jones throughout the game? Why did they keep Grimes, a savvy vet, on one side of the field instead of shadowing Jones, while protecting the very inexperienced Ryan Smith?
Why is this group still surrendering 500-yard games to opponents? Wasn't that what last season was for, with all the talk about "communication" and "soul searching?" Why is the defense giving up 392 yards per game or allowing a jaw-dropping 71 percent red zone efficiency within the division? Those are supposed to be the teams you know best. That's why there's the saying that "anything can happen within the division."
For the front office, why weren't more resources devoted to bolstering the pass rush -- particularly at edge rusher -- knowing that Noah Spence and Jacquies Smith were coming off surgeries and missed the entire offseason program? In a division featuring arguably the best quarterbacks in the league, pass rush is imperative, yet the Bucs went sackless for the fourth time Sunday. Does it cost a lot? Sure. But sometimes it works. Look what's happening in Jacksonville right now.
For players, what on earth is happening in the red zone, in the end zone, that getting seven is such a challenge? What is it about this scheme and the way that it's being coached that's causing so many big plays to be given up?
The answers might not come so easily, and sometimes things don't go your way and neither does the season. But it's a necessary part of untangling this mess with the hopes of preventing it from happening again.