For want of a win, a season lost?
They sat in silence, their eyes glassy and unfocused, as if they still had not realized the totality of the devastation. This was the tomblike atmosphere of the Bucs locker room after the carnage, a place so quiet you could hear an opportunity drop. The players, shellshocked and punch drunk, worked grimly at hacking away the tape from their ankles. Upon completion, a player would hurl the tape toward the center of the room where it would lie, wadded and wasted as the day. It was in those moments when it seemed to finally, painfully sink in just how important this dark afternoon was to the Bucs.

So much was lost Sunday. So much got away. It will be days, perhaps weeks, before we can properly assess the damage. But try this for a partial list: One game. Two stars. Momentum. The confidence of a young quarterback. Respect. The control of their fate. And maybe, just maybe, a season.

In a flawed season, this may well have been the fatal blow. Certainly, it looks very much like one of those Sundays that haunts a team for weeks, even months. Every team that narrowly misses the playoffs has a game that sticks in their throat. "If we don't make it, this could be the one that bites us in the a- -," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "It leaves you feeling frustrated, empty, searching for answers."

This was as bad a loss as you can imagine, and it came against a team that is worse than you can believe. These were the Bad News Bears, for crying out loud. The Munsters of the Midway. This was a team on its last legs, down to its third quarterback. The teams could have played for two weeks, taking time out only for meals, and the Bears wouldn't have scored a touchdown on offense. On the other hand: Bears 13, Bucs 10.

Good teams simply do not lose games like this. Oh, they may stumble around and look ugly, but they come to their senses in the end. They may lose players such as running back Mike Alstott and safety John Lynch, but they find a way to overcome it.

Good teams do not trip over a corpse of a team as it lies prone in the way. They do not score 10 points against the 25th-ranked defense in the NFL. They do not let an offense without a pulse run out the clock when there is still the chance of a last-second comeback. They do not pay attention to the wind or the cold. They do not stagger from the field, dazed and confused, wondering what has happened, filled more with questions than with answers. "I think they have to be the worst defense in the NFL," guard Frank Middleton said. "So what does that say about our offense? Put a big question mark behind it. You aren't a good offense until you do it every week."

Which leaves us where? The Bucs are 6-5, and increasingly, there is little reason to believe they are any more than that. For the short term, at least, they have lost Alstott (knee injury) and perhaps Lynch (dislocated shoulder). And the upcoming schedule is a minefield. "We're in trouble," Middleton said. "We've got to win out. We've got to beat Green Bay in Green Bay. We've got to beat the Rams at home. We've got to beat Buffalo at home, Dallas at home. (And Miami in Miami). We're in trouble, and the only way we can get out of it is 5-0."

That's the first sign of trouble, of course, when a team starts talking about winning the rest of its games. Today, it is hard not to see the Bucs as against the ropes. They lacked heat. Yeah, yeah, blame it on the cold if you want, and it is true the Bucs seem to have an irrational fear of all things cold, including snow-cones. But they could have used the other kind of fire, too. For whatever reason, the Bucs did not play with particular urgency. It was as if their three-game winning streak had blinded the team to the fact it was still in a hole, and for most of the day, the Bears, inexplicably, seemed to have more energy.

The Bucs lacked clutch. Think of King's interception that was returned for a touchdown in the closing minutes of the first half. Think of Warrick Dunn's fumble as the Bucs seemed to be moving toward a touchdown. Think of the second King interception. Think of a third- and-9 run for a first down by Marlon Barnes - Marlon Barnes! - when the Bucs still had a chance. They lacked smarts. Why, for heaven's sake, did Damien Robinson intercept a pass 20 yards downfield on a fourth down? And what was with the third-down runs on third and 6 and third and 3 in the first quarter?

Now for the big question: How do they get out of it? Assuming they do. They will miss Alstott's power on short yardage. If Lynch is out, they will miss the danger he brings to the secondary. "The worst thing you can do is to write us off," Derrick Brooks said. "When it's all over, we'll be in the playoffs, and we'll be playing for a chance to go to the Super Bowl."

Perhaps. Believe if you wish. But be warned: Once there, the odds are the Bucs would have to face a team even better than the Bears.

Gary Shelton , The St.Petersburg Times 2000