The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' hot start to the season faded as fast as a deck board in the blazing sun. Tampa sat atop the NFC South at 3-1 to open the campaign heading into the Week 5 bye. Three losses later, the division lead evaporated and then some.
Thursday night's 24-18 loss to the Buffalo Bills included more of the same struggles perpetuating the spiral. The offense can't consistently move the ball. The defense gets destroyed on third downs. And the self-inflicted wounds destroy any chance to stack positive plays.
"Losing three in a row sucks," quarterback Baker Mayfield said, via the Tampa Bay Times. "There's no way around that. ... But we showed fight tonight. That's the one thing we can hang our hats on. We gave it everything we had late there, but we've got to play better early on. You can't hurt yourselves."
The Bucs got down by double-digits twice before attempting rallies. Tampa trailed, 10-0, early in the second quarter before a field-goal drive and then a tipped interception turned into a short touchdown for the offense to tie the game at the half. The Bills responded with a touchdown late in the second quarter and early in the third to take a 14-point lead they'd hold for much of the second half.
"We shot ourselves in the foot early on with some penalties at some misopportune times," Mayfield said, via the team's website. "That continues to be a problem so we need to get that fixed. But the good thing about tonight was the fight, the resilience to be able to come back and the determination that we're never out of the fight. We can work with that. We can get these things fixed and move forward."
The Bucs got back into the contest with an excruciatingly long 17-play, 92-yard touchdown drive -- aided by two Bills penalties on fourth downs -- that took 7:21 off the clock. Given that they were down two scores, taking up half the quarter wasn't ideal, but the TD gave the Bucs a shot.
Mayfield heaved a gorgeous Hail Mary shot to close the game, but Chris Godwin turned his head late, watching the ball hit the turf for yet another loss.
The Bucs' three wins have come against the 3-4 Vikings, 2-5 Bears and 3-4 Saints. The losses came to the 6-1 Eagles, 5-2 Lions, 4-3 Falcons and 5-3 Bills. With the schedule, in theory, easing up a bit over the next five weeks (Houston, Tennessee, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Carolina), the Bucs could turn the ship back around.
"It won't snowball," coach Todd Bowles said of the losing streak. "We have a lot of leaders in that locker room, a lot of leaders on our coaching staff. We have faith. We understand how tough we play. We just have to play smarter."
Thursday's penalties (11) and lack of third-down efficiency (4-of-15 on offense, allowed 7-of-13 on defense) were problems that have persisted during the losing streak.
"My faith in these guys has never wavered," Bowles said. "I'll take them anywhere. I'll take them down an alley. I'll fight with them any kind of way. I believe in them wholeheartedly. We believe in ourselves as a team. And we know we'll push forward and get better."