One loss made the difference between sitting at home and watching on TV or potentially playing in the NFC Championship game at Chicago. One stupid loss to a somewhat underrated but still horrible Detroit Lions team ended up being the margin. Sure we could talk about the Atlanta games but realistically, that Detroit game was ours. Excuses aside (ahem, NFL refs), we should have won that game by stopping a 3rd string QB and 3rd string RB from moving the ball on us. The end result was not only a loss, but a lost opportunity to play a 17th game this year, to be 3 games away from the Super Bowl.
There will always be would'ves and could'ves in sports, but what was a great season was almost an amazing season. All things being equal, we would have faced either a downtrending Eagles team or an awful Seattle team whom we had just beat (sure it was at home, but lets not pick nits here). Had we won that game (which we would've been slight dogs just for playing on the road), we would have gone on to face either the Falcons or the Bears.
Presuming we were still slotted 6th, we would have gone to Atlanta to relive our "one yard short" moment. Atlanta is a fairly conservative team, which lends itself to more close games than blowouts, thus giving us a strong chance to stay in the game. And with the knowledge that its roughly a coin flip to beat a team three times in the same season, I like our chances in that game, particularly with an offense that could move the ball quickly when needed.
Of course, revisionist history never favored anyone, but I'd take a matchup against Cutler to go to the Super Bowl. Dude is bound to have a down game at some point.
But rather than gearing up for the first NFC Championship Game under Raheeminik, the Bucs players (and fans) are left pondering what could have been.
If only the Bucs hadn't morphed Drew Stanton into Randal Cunningham and Mo Morris into AP. What could have been will never be, but don't lose faith Bucs fans, at least we're talking one game.