It wasn't all that long ago that people were talking playoffs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the same sentence.
Well, that talk seems like a lifetime ago, as the Bucs look to snap a four- game losing streak on Sunday when they host the St. Louis Rams at Raymond James Stadium.
Tampa Bay's playoff hopes were officially dashed this past week, as they were dismantled by the New Orleans Saints, 41-0, at the Superdome.
Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman struggled, completing 26-of-47 passes for 279 yards, four interceptions and a lost fumble, while Doug Martin, who was second in the league in yards from scrimmage entering the game, picked up just 35 yards combined.
"I didn't get this team ready to go today for whatever that reason is," said Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano. "They fought their guts out. It's just that I didn't do a good job of getting ready and we didn't play well."
It marked the first time that Tampa Bay was blanked since a 24-0 shellacking at the hands of the New York Giants in 2009. It also harkened memories of a year ago when the Bucs dropped their final 10 games of the season.
"Well, I think our team is disappointed in what we did (Sunday)," Schiano said. "We go out and throw our first clunker. We've been together now for 11 months and we threw a clunker. Now, the sky is not falling."
To make mattes worse there was a sideline spat between assistant Bryan Cox and linebacker Adam Hayward. Additionally, a report surfaced on profootballtalk.com quoting an anonymous player asking, "Can we send these coaches back to college?"
As for the Cox-Hayward feud, Schiano said, "That is a heat of the moment deal that's behind us. We are moving forward. It is kind of like in your own family. It is never perfect, right? You really don't need everybody to see it on (TV). That is not the best thing either, but it is behind us."
St. Louis, meanwhile, has made great strides under first year head coach Jeff Fisher, but saw its three-game win streak come to an end this past Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in a 34-22 loss.
Sam Bradford threw for a career-best 377 yards and three touchdowns on 35- of-55 passing, while Stephen Jackson ran for 73 yards on 13 carries and became the 27th player in NFL history to reach the 10,000 rushing yard plateau.
However, it was another running back who stole the show against St. Louis.
After having not allowed an opposing running back to gain more than 65 yards in four straight games, the Rams allowed Minnesota's Adrian Peterson to rush for 212 yards.
"He's really good," coach Jeff Fisher said. "You can never relax. Every time he touches the ball he's got a chance to go. Now yes, we played a lot of good, solid defensive snaps, but we had two that were not good."
At 6-7-1, the Rams are mathematically still alive for a postseason berth, but would need an awful lot of things to fall their way the final two weeks of the season.
"I really don't think about the postseason," defensive end Chris Long said. "I always said I'll worry about that when it gets here and it will get here for this group eventually but evidently this year is not the year for the postseason."
The Rams lead the all-time series, 9-8, but the Bucs have walked away with a win in six of the last seven meetings. Tampa has also won all four matchups at home in this series since the Rams moved to St. Louis and have a five-game home win streak against the franchise.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Freeman's off day in Week 15 was particularly surprising considering he had a 25-8 TD-INT ratio coming into the game and was going up against the 32nd ranked defense in the league.
"In this league, nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed," said Freeman, who hadn't thrown a pick in his previous four games. "You've got to give it all you got every week. Having been at every game, been on the team the entire time, nothing is surprising. You look through it, you understand exactly what happened and when it happened. At the end of the year, when you look back and reflect, there's going to be a lot of stuff that we're going to look at, 'Man, we were that close.' But, at the same time, you've got to focus on the process, focus on the now... I think we're going to be just fine."
Over his last three games Freeman has completed 48.3 percent of his passes, while posting a passer rating of 60.8.
"I've got to do a better job," he said.
Freeman's main target continues to be Vincent Jackson, who has 80-plus receiving yards in four of the past five games.
Martin, who only managed 16 yards on the ground a week ago, may have a tough go of it against a Rams defense that was embarrassed by Peterson a week ago. Still, he only needs 353 scrimmage yards in the final two games (176.5 per game) to join Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as only rookies with 2,000.
St. Louis will try to get off to a fast start in this one, as the Rams have trailed at the half in five consecutive games and in eight of their last nine. They've also been outscored 73-28 in the first half of the last five games.
However, they have been within a touchdown in three of the five games. But in the second half of the five games the Rams have outscored their opponents, 69-32.
"Honestly, I feel like the way we've been able to come back out (in the second half) and battle through the adversity, and then win games at the end, is a lot better than a team that starts out good in the first half and then (falters) at the end," left tackle Rodger Saffold said.
It all starts with Bradford. In the last five games he has three TDs, four INTs and a passer rating of 66.0 in the first half and five TDs, no interceptions and a 90.4 rating in the second half.
Jackson is only 92 yards short of going over 1,000 yards for the eighth consecutive season. But, St. Louis' running game may have a hard time getting on track, as guard Harvey Dahl will miss the game with a torn left biceps.
The Rams probably aren't going to make the playoffs this season, but have made great strides in year one under Fisher. The same was said of Schiano midway through the year as well. However, the Bucs now look like the same team that cost Raheem Morris his job with their awful play down the stretch a year ago.
Look for that trend to continue on Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: St. Louis 23, Tampa Bay 12