Just another game. That's what the Buccaneers kept saying last week about their matchup Sunday with the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
Funny, but in the aftermath of it all, it was hard to find anyone who would suggest the Bucs' 17-10 setback was just another loss.
Literally and figuratively, this was one of the more painful losses of the season, considering the Bucs lost more than a football game.
For starters, they lost their starting right guard, Davin Joseph, to a foot injury, and their starting safety, rookie Cody Grimm, to an ankle injury.
They also lost their cool a bit. Cornerback Aqib Talib did anyway, trading verbal salvos with an official as he left the field after the game.
Most importantly, the Bucs lost another chance to legitimize themselves to their critics, whose scant view of this 7-4 team couldn't have improved during this outing.
This was the fourth time in as many tries the Bucs lost to a team with a winning record, and like the first two, the outcome of this one seemed inevitable early on.
Though the defense played "consistently,'' according to Bucs coach Raheem Morris, the offense - in particular quarterback Josh Freeman - struggled for the better part of the afternoon, not finding a rhythm until late in the fourth quarter.
"That's what the Ravens do to you,'' said Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow, who caught Freeman's only touchdown pass on a day in which the second-year pro completed just 17 of 37 throws for 162 yards.
"Even when I was (playing for) Cleveland, it was always the same thing with these guys. If you get behind early against them it's really hard to come back, and that's what happened to us today.''
The Bucs played the Ravens even for a quarter but the game turned in the second quarter when Baltimore scored on three of its four possessions, including the last one, which sparked a major controversy.
On a third-and-3 play from the Bucs' 34-yard line, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw deep down the right sideline for receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who was being covered by rookie cornerback Myron Lewis.
Field judge Boris Cheek flagged Lewis for pass interference, saying Lewis gave Houshmandzadeh an "arm bar,'' which drew the ire of the Bucs sideline and gave the Ravens a first down at the Bucs' 10-yard line.
Flacco connected with Derrick Mason on a 10-yard touchdown pass one play later to complete Baltimore's 17-point quarter, but the fallout from the pass interference call didn't end there.
Morris ran across the field and confronted Cheek as he headed to the locker room at the half and Talib carried the argument into the tunnel after the game, exchanging a series of expletive-filled barbs with the officials.
Neither the officials nor Talib would comment afterward on the incident, and while Morris refused to blame the loss on that one play, some in the Bucs' locker room believe it weighed more heavily in the outcome than others.
"In a game like this, you can usually look back and say it turned on one or two plays, and (today) when we look back on this game that play will probably be one of the ones that comes up,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said.
Another that will come up will be Flacco's 65-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap. That came on the fourth play of the first series the Bucs played without Grimm, and the rookie's absence was felt.
With Grimm's replacement, Sabby Piscitelli, stepping up against Flacco's play-action run fake, Heap ran past him and into an uncovered zone, where he hauled in Flacco's soft toss and began his sprint to the end zone.
"The safety kind of bit up and the linebackers, everybody, was flat-footed, and Joe saw the same thing I did,'' Heap said. "I think his eyes were as big as mine. It was a good play, and we needed the touchdown at that time.''
They didn't need many more. The Bucs' offense was struggling to get anything going, running 13 times for just 31 yards and accumulating just 64 more through the air during the first half.
The second half didn't start much better for the Bucs or Freeman, who finished the third quarter having completed just nine of 25 throws for 94 yards.
"I felt like we had a good game plan, but I just didn't execute today,'' Freeman said. "We let a lot of good opportunities just kind of slip through our fingers today.''
Freeman finally found his stroke in the fourth quarter, leading the Bucs to a touchdown that tightened the score with 3:05 left, but the defense couldn't get the ball back.
"We just had too many missed opportunities,'' said Bucs rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who continued his second-half surge with a pair of sacks. "Like at the end there; we needed to get the ball back and we couldn't do it.''
It's been like that all year against teams like the Ravens, who improved to 8-3. The next chance to prove they can beat such a team is straight ahead, though, as the Falcons come to Tampa next week.
"It's as big a game as we've had all year coming up next week,'' Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "It's a division game and now they have a two-game lead on us. We definitely have to get back and find a way to win.''