The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still a year away. Really, truly they are.
I said it before the season started and I will say it again. These Buccaneers are pretty good, but they are STILL a year away.
Yes, they are still alive in the NFC playoff hunt, if you want to call it that. Yes, they're 6-5, but really? They're headed to Denver to face you-know-who and his Broncos—those are the 8-3 and probable AFC West champion Broncos.
These Bucs are still a year away and once again proved it on Sunday. Hopes were running really high pre-game at Raymond James. There was nothing but good vibes in the stands, very good vibes. The Dirty Birds were going down, surely.
The Bucs reinforced that on their first drive when they went for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
But there was and will be the rest of the way, that secondary, that defense that wouldn't and couldn't get Matt Ryan and his offense off the field. Third downs belonged to Matty Ice. His uniform was still pure white at halftime, not a grass stain on it.
Although it was 10-10 with Matt Bryant, the former Buc missing that chip-shot field goal, hopes were high, but there was still that secondary and a defensive line that couldn't stain that No. 2 jersey.
Looking back, the Bucs had their chances, and this time, they couldn't make enough happen when they had those chances. Three times they came away with field goals instead of touchdowns. E.J. Biggers finally squashed Ryan, Gerald McCoy got himself a fumble recovery at the Atlanta 36 and surely the momentum had swung with 11:23 left.
Dropped passes by Luke Stocker and Tiquan Underwood doomed any hopes of seven. Field goal. Harumph.
The Bucs earlier in the game couldn't get in on first and goal from the three.
Playoff teams don't miss opportunities like that. They don't, not in this league. A year from now, they'll punch it in and win. Still, they led 20-17. It was 17 thanks to another third quarter secondary gaff when Leonard Johnson, beaten by Julio Jones, whiffed on the tackle and watched from the ground as No. 11 took it 80 yards to the house.
Greg Schiano called it "that monster play." And it was the monster that once again devoured the Buccaneer secondary.
A year from now, they'll do something about this secondary.
A year from now, those 350 and 400-yard passing games won't come easily as they do now.
The final insult, the final proof of playoff unworthiness, came late when the defense looked as if it finally stopped the Von Ryan Express on the Buc 5-yard line, surely forcing a field goal that would leave the Bucs with a 23-20 lead with 7:55 to play.
Instead, Ahmad Black's holding call gave the Falcons first and goal at the three and they did what playoff teams do. They punched it in, courtesy of Michael Turner.
Sure, there was the Connor Barth missed field goal attempt. But maybe a year from now, the Bucs score a touchdown instead of having Barth try a long one. Maybe a year from now, they score a touchdown, go up 30-24 then stop the Falcons dead, get the ball and close out the game.
That's what playoff teams do, that's what championship teams do.
It's not what the Bucs did Sunday, but it's what they may well do next year.
As for now, they've proven they can compete with anyone and come agonizingly close to big wins.
Notice the word "agonizingly."
Next year, there will be less agony and a lot more ecstasy.
But for now, they're teetering in this playoff hunt and deep down inside, you have to wonder if they are truly worthy.