Bucs face uphill climb to playoffs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a somber locker room Sunday evening, where much of the bluster of the previous three hours was reduced to a series of barely audible grunts, it was appropriate that Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice resorted to the kind of language one might typically expect to hear at a morticians' convention to describe the desperate state of the defending Super Bowl champions.

Rice and his teammates, who had publicly assured a victory over the Carolina Panthers early in the week, could not fulfill that guarantee. With the 27-24 loss to the Panthers that dropped Tampa Bay to 4-5 and marked the first time the Bucs have lost consecutive games under coach Jon Gruden, they likely won't fulfill, either, their aspiration to be the first repeat champion since 1998.

Since the league adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978, there have been only two NFC champions with more than four losses: the '79 Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers of '88. The future doesn't look good for a Bucs team that is now more stagger than swagger. Neither does the fact that opponents don't fear Tampa Bay nearly as much as they did a year ago and, more important, nor are the Bucs as confident of their one-time bully status.

And so, in a Bucs locker room once defined by tough talk, the fierce pride seemed Sunday to have been replaced by a touch of the funeral.

The pirate ship is taking on bilge water and, heading into next weekend's game against longtime rival Green Bay, the Bucs are barely treading water.

"There's still a pulse, but you've got to search a little bit harder for it, you know?" said Rice, who did his part to stir the faltering Bucs, notching four tackles, two sacks, at least three hurries, and a forced fumble. "You guys are starting to throw dirt on us, I know, and the shovels are (poised). But the casket top (isn't) slammed shut yet."

Maybe not, but Bucs management might want to send for a minister to perform the last rites, given Sunday's squandered comeback.

Trailing 20-7 nearly five minutes into the fourth quarter, the Bucs scored 17 points in an eight-minute flurry, but failed to close the game out. The Panthers went 78 yards in six plays, the winning points coming on Jake Delhomme's five-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith with 1:06 remaining.

Tampa Bay trails resourceful and resilient Carolina by three games in the loss column now. Because the Panthers swept the divisional series, Carolina owns the tiebreaker in any head-to-head competition, essentially providing it a four-game margin. So the Bucs can all but forget overtaking the 7-2 Panthers for the NFC South championship.

Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, noting that his club is now 5-0 in NFC South play with just a Dec. 7 contest at Atlanta remaining, went so far as to declare that the Panthers "clinched the division today." Technically, that isn't the case, but Jenkins isn't far off. Only a monumental collapse over the final seven games can keep Carolina from securing its first division title since 1996, the franchise's second season of existence.

As for the Bucs ...

"I'm confident that we can put the wheels on this thing again," Gruden emphasized after another late-game pratfall.

To do so, Gruden had better locate a mechanic who knows something about tightening all the lug nuts. And he better find another capable of maintaining air pressure at all times. The Bucs, slumped in front of their lockers and dazed at the manner in which they have so suddenly come unglued, were a sorry and surly bunch.

Warren Sapp, all but muted by defeat, ironically doled out words as if they were hundred-dollar bills. "Next question," he snapped repeatedly. Sapp's sparse syllables were apropos, given that no one seems to have any answers.

With the lack of consistency to this point, and the inexplicable loss of their trademark killer instinct, the Bucs might struggle to remain in contention for a wild-card berth. Even if Tampa Bay sneaks into the postseason, it probably would do so as the fifth- or sixth-seeded qualifier, with characteristically means an invitation barely worth the cost of mailing back the R.S.V.P.

Since the NFL introduced a 12-team playoff format in 1990, no bottom-feeding seed has advanced to the Super Bowl.

In the waning minutes of Sunday's game, the Bucs resembled a one-year Super Bowl wonder. You know, a club that claims the title one season, then wonders what happened in the ensuing year.

There were misplays, bad plays and dreadful plays from the Bucs on Sunday.

Strong safety John Lynch bit on an underneath rout and surrendered a long touchdown pass. Keyshawn Johnson dropped two passes. Offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, forced to move from the right side to the left for a second straight week, was flagged for four penalties, three of them personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct. The Panthers had complained vociferously about Walker's dubious blocking tactics after the first meeting of the season, and coach John Fox called them to the officials' notice this week.

There is some good news: The Bucs have four of their remaining seven games at home, but Tampa Bay is hardly invincible now in its own surroundings. The Bucs have dropped three of four home contests in 2003 and, despite besting Green Bay three times in a row at Tampa, can take nothing for granted.

Said cornerback Ronde Barber, who played an atypically sloppy game here, missing a handful of tackles and getting beat by Carolina possession receiver Ricky Proehl for a 66-yard touchdown catch: "You can't start even thinking about the playoffs until you at least get back to the .500 mark. Right now, we're not even there, right? We'd better just worry about winning a game, taking care of business, cutting down on mistakes. We've got to get back that sense of urgency that has always been (a hallmark) for how we play. This is a wake-up call, and we'd better snap out of this (malaise)."

Amazingly, it took an unwitting boost from the Carolina promotions department to help awaken the slumbering Super Bowl champions here Sunday afternoon.

With just under 11 minutes remaining in the game Sunday, the message board at Ericsson Stadium flashed a live and impromptu interview with the franchise's "Fan of the Week." Dressed in pretty ragged cat costume, and billing himself as "The Carolina Prowler," the unidentified fan cited Rice's early week boasting, called out Sapp, and then announced: "We guarantee we're going to kick their butts."

The innocent yet silly proclamation, by a guy who appeared to have been well lubricated, was like pouring kerosene beneath the Bucs' butts and then tossing in a pack of lit matches. Rice and Sapp became immediately more animated, and the latter produced consecutive sacks of Delhomme, fueling a defensive feeding frenzy that was matched by a brilliant stretch of accuracy from quarterback Brad Johnson and some terrific catches by Keenan McCardell and Keyshawn Johnson.

McCardell made an incredible one-handed grab between cornerback Reggie Howard and strong safety Mike Minter to nudge Tampa Bay into its first lead, and then Martin Gramatica followed with a 39-yard field goal for a 24-20 lead with 2:41 left to play. But the fire, inexplicably, went out as the Panthers rode the usually scatter-armed Delhomme on the winning 78-yard drive.

Whether it can be re-ignited in time to salvage this season on the brink, well, not even Rice can predict.

"I don't know," said Rice. "I just don't know. I guess we're going to find out."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.