TAMPA — Did it really happen?
It seems like a dream now.
Was it real?
Was it something we ate?
In the opener of their 2018 NFL season, the Bucs — seemingly in disarray, with their star quarterback suspended, given up for a signature death drop before the season even began — stood up and stunned the Saints in New Orleans, 48-40.
It was a shot out of nowhere, with offense everywhere, behind the new talk of the town, the back-up quarterback who launched a thousand beards.
Ryan Fitzpatrick seems a long time ago.
Ryan Fitzpatrick to DeSean Jackson seems a long time ago.
The Bucs were startling that day. Anything seemed possible — anything — after that Sunday in New Orleans. It became more dizzying when the Bucs came home and toppled the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles to hit 2-0.
A dream indeed.
Then the bottom fell out.
For weeks and weeks, as the losses piled up, the dream gave way to a nightmare. Even now, the Bucs have won their past two games but lost seven of 10 since 2-0.
Did that opener really ever happen?
"It does seem like a long time ago," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "But that's neither here nor there."
"That was Week 1," Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "We obviously won that game, but this will be a whole another game."
But maybe it has begun to creep into some brains:
It can happen again.
Yes, it can happen again, this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, in what passes for drama in a 5-7 season. A chance to startle people one more time.
Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the 10-2 Saints will arrive snarling from a recent loss at Dallas and alive with the memory of that stunning opener.
They will be looking for payback. The Bucs will be up against it again, this time with Jameis Winston back under center.
The Bucs reset expectations in that opener. Then they sank to new depths. Now they are trying another reset.
It might be too late — to save the season, to save jobs moving forward. This still doesn't feel like a team that can run the table to get to 9-7 and hope to get in the postseason. This still feels like a lost season, a 6-10 season.
Go beat the Saints and say differently.
I don't know how you recreate that kind of pixie dust, though suddenly Winston looks good and the defense, once so hapless, is comprised of sackmeisters and takeaway fiends.
But it's just two games, two wins in a row.
Here comes the acid test.
Remember, the Bucs, upset or no, still gave up 40 points to Brees and the Saints, and no one could cover Michael Thomas (16 catches).
Remember, the Saints guard was down in that opener. They took Fitz too lightly. That guard is now completely up. New Orleans has adjusted. Dallas smashed the Saints in the mouth last Thursday. New Orleans has tucked that away, as well as the loss to the Bucs.
The Bucs beat Carolina last Sunday, avenging an earlier 42-28 loss to the Panthers up there. McCoy says there's a lesson there for the Bucs.
"Last week was knowing how Carolina did us when we went up there, and knowing we had another opportunity," he said. "Why wouldn't (New Orleans) have the same mind-set? I know how Coach Payton is. They're going to come with some fire."
I still can't shake the feeling that the opening week was a dream. Same goes for the win over Philadelphia. Did it really happen?
Did it really, truly happen?
"It's the NFL," McCoy said. "Anybody can be beat."
The Bucs will have to prove it.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029.