When it ended a year ago, they stormed off the field with balled fists and clenched teeth, angry that they had not finished the job after coming so close to reaching the Super Bowl.
When it ended Sunday, the Bucs walked slowly and silently to the locker room, disappointed but not in disbelief.
That essentially describes not only what happened in the Bucs' 21- 3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC wild-card playoff game at Veterans Stadium but also to their season.
What began with so much fire ended with ice.
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran for another score, almost single-handedly willing his team to Sunday's division playoff game against the Giants.
Meanwhile, the champagne tasted a little flat for the Bucs, who begin the new year much like they did the old - pondering what they have to do to score on offense during the regular season and beyond.
"It's definitely disappointing," safety John Lynch said. "I think we came in with the mind-set that anything less than getting to the Super Bowl and winning it would be disappointing. We obviously fell far from that."
How far? Remember that in last season's loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis, the Bucs scored six points. Against the Eagles, they scored three.
It was the Bucs' biggest margin of defeat all season because of a poor defensive effort that featured sloppy tackling and an inability to control the Eagles' afterthought running attack.
"That's happened three times that we've gone on the road in the playoffs, and we haven't scored a lot of points," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "You've got to be able to get that done. Today I don't think it was all the offense. Defensively we let them control the ball much, much too long and convert third downs. That's a part of it, too. I don't think you can look at it and say, 'Well, they got three points, so the offense didn't play well.' "
Sunday's performance definitely will begin an off-season debate about the marriage of quarterback Shaun King to the offense run by coordinator Les Steckel.
Even King sounded frustrated aboaut what was a very conservative game plan, especially in the first half.
The Bucs' best scoring opportunity came in the second quarter when the Bucs faced third and 7 at the Philadelphia 14-yard line. King had completed four passes on the drive, but Steckel elected to run Warrick Dunn on a draw play, and Dunn was stopped after 3-yard gain, forcing the Bucs to settle for a Martin Gramatica 29-yard field goal.
"I didn't think we played to our abilities," King said. "We didn't go out and be aggressive. We played like we had another game to play if we lost this one. I think we need to use the off-season to look at this offense and see what we want to be."
Inexplicably, the Bucs went away from what had worked so well down the stretch - giving Dunn the ball. Dunn gained 1 yard on eight carries.
And though receiver Keyshawn Johnson finished with six catches for 106 yards, only two came in the first half. That might explain why the Bucs finished 3-of-13 on third-down conversions.
Though McNabb was efficient, completing 24 of 33 passes for 161 yards and rushing eight times for 32 yards, he didn't do anything spectacular. Fourteen of his completions were to running backs or tight ends. "When you come up on him when he starts to scramble, he's going to throw it over your head," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "He's a heck of an athlete. He beat us. Realistically, he beat us today."
The Eagles scored 14 of their points in the final four minutes of the first half.
Philadelphia's first touchdown was a gift. King was blindsided and sacked by defensive end Hugh Douglas. He fumbled the ball, and it was recovered by Mike Mamula at the Tampa Bay 15. McNabb scored on a 5- yard run, calling his number on a draw play on third and goal. "We ended up in a situation where we had Warrick Dunn blocking Hugh Douglas and we had a screen play off of that," Dungy said. "We really needed to have Mike Alstott in there at that time and really didn't get that communicated, and he made a play on it. That really got the momentum going in their favor."
The Eagles needed 91 seconds to march 69 yards on eight plays on their next possession, with McNabb throwing a 5-yard pass to Na Brown 17 seconds before halftime.
"The game was going back and forth pretty even, and they got the turnover," Dungy said. "I thought they really got an emotional lift, and we really didn't match them. They got 14 points going against the wind the last four minutes of the half, and basically, that was the game."
Given the Bucs' lack of history in comebacks, the bleak would get bleaker. Five times the Bucs were tied or had trailed at halftime during the regular season. Not surprisingly, they lost all five.
The Bucs didn't return from halftime with any more fire.
Philadelphia controlled the ball for all but five plays in the third quarter. Even though the Eagles' first drive after halftime resulted in a missed 36-yard field goal by David Akers, it served a purpose. Philadelphia ran nearly eight minutes off the clock.
McNabb's third touchdown pass - a 2-yarder to Jeff Thomason - helped make it 21-3 with 14:13 left.
"Everybody talks about the elements," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "But when you're in those kind of elements and you're on the field a lot, you start to get kind of frozen."
This might be all Tampa Bay fans can garner from the season - they know what the Bucs still can't do. They can't win a playoff game on the road; they are 0-5. And they certainly can't win when it is below room temperature. Below 40 degrees, that's 0-20, and more than a coincidence. "It's always tough after a loss," Dungy said. "It's been a good year. Right now it doesn't seem like you have a lot of bright spots to look at. We came here and gave it our best shot. Philadelphia really outplayed us today. It was a good year for us. Not as good as we would've liked. It was a disappointing end, but I think we've got the type of guys who will bounce back."
Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000