TAMPA, Fla. -- Suddenly, this wild and wacky season seemed like it was about to make total sense for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Without any real warning, the Bucs suddenly seemed on the verge of beating a good football team. Raymond James Stadium was starting to rock like it used to in the glory days. Greg Schiano's hot seat seemed to be on the verge of getting hit by air conditioning.
Then, in a fashion in which the Bucs have trademarked this season, it all fell apart. Water found its own level and the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Bucs 33-14 in what might have amounted to Schiano's last stand.
Despite being dismal on offense for the better part of three quarters, the Bucs were right where they wanted to be. With 12 minutes, 9 seconds left in the game, they trailed 20-14. San Francisco had the ball and faced a third-and-12 from its own 29-yard line.
A stop there and maybe Tampa Bay's offense, which had suddenly found some momentum, could have squeezed out a touchdown drive to win the game. It all seemed to be going according to plan as defensive ends Da’Quan Bowers and William Gholston chased San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of the pocket and toward the sideline.
A sack and a punt and Tampa Bay's offense might have faced a short field. But Tampa Bay's season is a story of "what ifs," and this became the biggest one of all. What if Bowers or Gholston makes the sack? What if Kaepernick throws the ball away?
It doesn't really matter because Kaepernick scrambled free and found Michael Crabtree for a first down. That helped keep alive a drive that lasted 10:27 and resulted in a San Francisco field goal.
"We want to be respected," linebacker Lavonte David said after the Buccaneers fell to 4-10. "Even though our record shows otherwise, we want to show that we're a real force in this league. We feel like, this record that we've got, it's not supposed to be like that. We had the opportunity against a great football team. We showed up, but the 10-minute drive kind of killed us."
The 49ers followed that with a knockout punch that the Bucs helped deliver. On the kickoff after the field goal, the Bucs attempted a reverse, but a handoff between Eric Page and Russell Shepard went awry and San Francisco took the ball into the end zone for a touchdown and a 30-14 lead. That effectively ended the game.
"All week, we talked about making it a fourth-quarter game," Schiano said. "A heavyweight fight, get it to the fourth quarter and find a way to win. That's why it's very disappointing for players and coaches alike, is that we felt like we had the opportunity and we let it go."
This little turn of events was about ending more than just one game. It's the story of the season. Another opportunity lost, and maybe the final straw in a coaching tenure.
A victory would have made the Bucs winners of five of their last six games. It would have been the fourth straight home win. Follow it up with victories at St. Louis and New Orleans and Schiano's job probably becomes pretty secure.
But the reality is the Bucs are sinking toward the bottom of the NFC, and even the most optimistic fan can't argue that the arrow is pointing up. There's a huge decision ahead.
Does Schiano get a third year or does he get fired? Does general manager Mark Dominik get brought back for a sixth season?
That decision is ultimately up to the Glazer family, which owns the team. History has shown the Glazers are unpredictable, and it's anyone's guess what they'll do with Schiano.
But let's close this out with a little exercise in common sense. Back in the preseason a lot of people -- and we're talking people outside and inside One Buccaneer Place -- believed the Bucs could make the playoffs this season after going 7-9 in Schiano's first year.
Now, they're staring down the barrel at 4-12, maybe 5-11 or, at best, 6-10. None of those options are attractive.
A victory against the 49ers, and all the positives that could have followed, quite possibly would have solidified Schiano's grip on his job. But that victory didn't happen. It slipped away, just like the rest of the season.
You have to wonder if Schiano's chance to stick around slipped away Sunday.