I listened to and I watched Kevin Carter after Sunday's game against Jacksonville. I think he was trying to make sense of it all. From his standpoint, he's seen it all. He's won a Super Bowl in St. Louis, played with some great defenses in Tennessee and Miami and is one of those veterans you love to talk to because he's thoughtful with his answers and exudes intelligence.
But he struggled with his words Sunday. He stammered. He thought. He looked up in the air. He struggled for answers to simple questions.
Was he shell-shocked? I'd have to say so. When you play well enough defensively to win two straight games, but lose, you enter question-asking mode.
As in — is this team good enough to make the playoffs? Or has this first half of the season been nothing more than a nice tease?
I sensed more than disappointment in the locker room Sunday. I sensed anger, or at least displeasure. Carter took exception to a question about going back to the "drawing board" with this team. Ronde Barber made sure a reporter understood that he shouldn't characterize this is as a bad defensive game.
Barber had a point. The defense gave up only 219 net yards on Sunday. This came a week after grounding, relatively speaking, Detroit's high-flying offense to just 278 net yards. The Bucs defense has, for the most part, played well. There are a few plays they'd like to have back, certainly, but their play was good enough to win.
Well, except for one area — turnovers. The Bucs didn't force one in either loss, and the Bucs turned it over five times.
Nope. No dice.
The last two losses are on the offense. The weight of injuries to Carnell Williams, Luke Petitgout, Michael Clayton and Michael Pittman has caught up to this group. Their play has been inconsistent. Jeff Garcia has committed all five turnovers himself, a damning development when you consider how he solidified the position just a few weeks ago. Receivers are dropping passes. The offensive line is average. The running game remains fairly consistent since Pittman's injury, but not explosive.
This team is in flux. That's why Carter struggled so much with his words Sunday. He knows how critical this stretch of the season can be.
"This time right now, this time in our season, the midway point — weeks six through 10 — is when teams define who they are and what they're going to be for the season," Carter said. "They either go out there and show they're playoff contenders or they don't."
Are the Bucs contenders? Yes, especially in a wide-open NFC and a South Division that looks pretty average this year. Carolina doesn't scare me. New Orleans is playing much better, but that hole may be too big to dig out of. Even Garcia knows that the season certainly isn't lost.
"We could beat ourselves up about a lot of things today, but we are only halfway through the season and I am not going to allow myself to hang my head and be disappointed because of the outcome of tonight," Garcia said.
Perhaps that's why these last two losses have proven so debilitating. The Bucs are just a few points away from being 6-2, firmly in control of the NFC South and, potentially, the conference's third-best team. Instead, they are part of the glut of average teams that will compete for the three playoff berths left after the Cowboys win the East, and the Giants and Redskins claim the two Wild Card berths. I don't believe there are enough good teams out there to prevent that from happening.
It's turning into a mess, but at least the Buccaneers can say that, after eight games, they're a part of that mess. It's a positive development in a season few expected this much from.
So stop kicking yourself over what might have been. You're just bruising your butt. There are eight games left and the Bucs — as strange as it sounds after these two devastating losses — have their destiny in their hands.
WR Joey Galloway : I do this begrudgingly, because he did drop a few passes he should have caught. But he went over the 100-yard mark and caught a TD pass to set off the Bucs' comeback in the second quarter.
RB Michael Bennett : You wish that pass down the sideline had been a little shorter? So does Bennett. But he showed off what he can do for this offense with that 19-yard TD run. He could become a real productive player after the bye.
Bucs LBs : They gang-tackled all day. While they missed a few, they made most of the tackles they needed to. The Jags went 4-of-16 on third down for a reason.
Jags QB Quinn Gray: Give the kid his props. He didn't do anything stupid. He easily could have been the reason the Jags lost the game, but he wouldn't allow it (or, more to the point, the game plan wouldn't allow it).
CB Phillip Buchanon (as punt returner): Two punt returns for a 12.0-yard average, plus a long of 24. He has explosiveness and makes good cuts. He'll soften the blow of losing Mark Jones.
Bucs pass rush : Granted the Jags only threw the ball 16 times, but two sacks and two hurries isn't high-quality pressure, especially on a young quarterback with little experience.
QB Jeff Garcia : He threw three interceptions and missed several chances to hook up deep with receivers. It was one of those days for him. But in a contest that close, he had to get it done.
S Tanard Jackson: That fourth-quarter unnecessary roughness call was a big mistake that led to a touchdown by Jacksonville. Jon Gruden talked about young players not getting it done on Sunday. He might have been hinting at Jackson.
Turnover ratio: One more time — minus-five in the last two games won't win you anything but a week of second-guessing.
The Gruden Heat-O-Meter
Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden entered this season on the hot seat. Each week I'll take the temperature under that seat.
Last week: 2.5; Now: 3.5
You have to turn the burner up a bit after a two-game losing streak, don't you? Additionally, the Bucs are making similar mistakes to last year — lack of red-zone efficiency, losing the turnover battle and missed opportunities on offense. If they beat Arizona, I'll turn it down a bit, because Gruden could use some time to relax. But this week's game is a big one from a psyche standpoint. If they lose to Arizona, I could see the Bucs going in the tank after the bye.
I made 10 predictions before the game. How did I do? Let's check, shall we?
1. Jeff Garcia will throw his first interception of the season. I see Rashean Mathis picking him off. This streak is bound to end at some point. Half-credit. The streak ended with an interception by veteran Aaron Glenn, who returned it for a touchdown. Then Garcia threw two more to salt the earth.
2. I would be surprised if, between Earnest Graham and Michael Bennett, that the Bucs rushed for 80 yards on Sunday. The Jags run defense is that good, and they'll be pumped on Sunday knowing their young quarterback needs a lift. Color me surprised. Graham (62 yards) and Bennett (23 yards) got just over the 80-yard hump (85 yards). As a team they rushed for 136 yards (three more than Jacksonville), mainly because Garcia chipped in 45 yards.
3. The leading receiver on Sunday will be … Ike Hilliard for the third straight week. Nope. Joey Galloway returns with a six-catch, 115-yard effort. He also scored that long TD that I said the Bucs needed.
4. Donald Penn will have his hands full with Paul Spicer, giving up at least one sack. Penn didn't give up a sack to Spicer or backup Reggie Hayward. But I'd still contend his performance was average at best.
5. The Buccaneers' interior linemen — Davin Joseph, John Wade and Arron Sears — will block Jaguars DTs John Henderson and Marcus Stroud to a draw. Henderson had one tackle. Stroud had three tackles and a half-sack. The Bucs ran the ball fairly effectively. Call it a draw.
1. It's about time Ronde Barber had a big day. Expect him to pick off Quinn Gray and sack Gray at least once. One of those plays may go for a touchdown. In a word, no. Barber never sniffed the football. Gray made one mistake on that fumble deep in his end zone, but recovered the ball and got it to the 1-yard line before a safety could be called.
2. The Buccaneers have not scored a defensive touchdown all year. I think that streak ends Sunday. The low-scoring nature of this game demands the defense create a big play. I was right about how the game demanded a big defensive play. It just never came. They forced no turnovers for the second straight week.
3. Barrett Ruud bounces back from last week's "sub-par" performance and gets back into the 10-tackle area this week. The Jags like to run inside. Ruud had 12 tackles to lead the Bucs.
4. I think this might be the week we see Jeremiah Trotter on defense. Why? He's physical and can stop the run, and the Jags' exceptional ground game makes him a natural play. But don't expect Ruud to leave the field. I envision Trotter being used sparingly in a 3-4 set alongside Ruud. I haven't whiffed that hard since Little League. Trotter was inactive. If the Bucs used a 3-4 set, I never saw it.
5. The Buccaneers will sack Quinn Gray three times, one of which will lead to a fumble. Two sacks, no fumbles.
I picked the Bucs to win, 13-10. I dropped to 4-4 in picking the winner, and dropped to 3-2 when I pick the Bucs.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.