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While the end felt cruel, ride was one to remember for this Bucs team

DETROIT — The ribs had been sore for a few weeks now. The ankle was taped up, too.

And yet, when the final hour arrived, the only way Baker Mayfield would depart was with a broken heart.

His final throw of the 2023 season — potentially his final throw for Tampa Bay — was an interception with 99 seconds remaining and the Bucs still 85 yards away from madness in a 31-23 loss to the Lions in a division playoff game Sunday afternoon.

For a moment, Mayfield stood watching in disbelief. Then he bent over at the waist, staring down at the Ford Field turf, until left guard Aaron Stinnie came over and put an arm around him. Soon, left tackle Tristan Wirfs arrived. And then, as Mayfield was walking off, Lavonte David and Mike Evans stopped him, as well.

“I told him I loved him. Told him I was proud of him,” Wirfs said later in a hushed locker room. “We’re all in this together, all 22 hands in the same pile. He’s real hard on himself and so I wanted him to know I loved him and that he should keep his head up high.”

The Bucs eventually left the field with the slow, tortured walk of runners-up everywhere but this was unlike most season-defining losses. While it may have seemed demoralizing, it was not premature.

This team outlived expectations. It outlived the Cowboys, Eagles and Dolphins. It outlived common sense.

This was not a great team that came up short; it was a plucky team that went long. And that was the message David delivered when they crowded together in the cramped, muggy locker room across the hall from the victorious Lions.

“He said, ‘I know this hurts because we didn’t win the Super Bowl, but we beat a lot of odds.’ A lot of people counted us out,” linebacker K.J. Britt said. “People didn’t think we would make it this far. A lot of them were saying we’d be 4-13 this year. Lavonte said he was proud of us all.”

There was sadness, but not anger. Disappointment, but not regret.

This was supposed to be a team in decline. A team shedding veterans, salaries and hope.

In that sense, the final game was a fitting coda for a group that kept coming back when the smart money counted them out.

The Bucs were behind three different times in three different quarters Sunday, and eventually tied the score on each occasion.

Fifteen minutes away from the NFC Championship Game, and the Bucs were in a 17-17 game on the road. That just doesn’t happen. Not for teams that begin December with a 4-7 record. The last time a team reached a conference championship after a 4-7 start was 27 years ago.

If you want to define cruelty, it’s a team that was just beginning to find itself when the lights went out.

“Yeah, this is tough to accept,” said Stinnie. “We were just hitting our stride, which is what you want when you’re getting to the playoffs. You want to keep on rolling and keep on climbing, so this is a hard moment to live with. To have it end so suddenly? That’s playoff football.”

The Bucs never led on Sunday, but they kept the Lions and 66,201 fans in constant fear. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter when the Bucs had lost defensive backs Jamel Dean and Kaevon Merriweather to injuries that Detroit finally began moving the ball with confidence. Detroit had back-to-back touchdown drives of 75 and 89 yards to put the Bucs in a hole they could no longer crawl out of.

“It sucks,” said Mayfield, who is a free agent after signing a one-year, $4 million deal with incentives in a career-reviving decision. “I feel like my heart just got ripped out.”

So how do you measure success? By how far you traveled or how much you overcame? By trophies or self-worth?

The reality is this season was a gift. A third consecutive division title. A fourth postseason appearance in a row. All for a team that had mortgaged its salary cap future to win one Super Bowl and try for two others with Tom Brady at quarterback. A team that led the NFL in playing time for rookies.

The Bucs have won six playoff games since 2020, which is as many as this franchise had won in the previous 44 years combined.

Tampa Bay fans have cheered for more talented teams and more glorious endings, but it’s rare to walk away from a season with the sense that you have just witnessed a team that maxed out its potential.

“Obviously, I’ve been on more talented teams. That 2020 season is hard to beat for elite history,” said Evans, who finished with 147 receiving yards and one touchdown. “This is one of the best teams I’ve ever been on, as far as heart and fighting to the end and not listening to the outside (noise).”

And perhaps that’s how this team should be remembered.

With Chase McLaughlin hitting a game-winning field goal in the season opener in Minnesota. With Mayfield throwing a touchdown pass to Cade Otton in the final seconds at Atlanta. With a huge upset in Green Bay and a defensive stand at Carolina.

With head coach Todd Bowles convincing his players to ignore the criticism, learn from the losses and trust each other when nearly everyone else was willing to write them off.

That’s what you should take away from this season. That’s what you should recall when, years from now, someone asks about the team that won a division title and a playoff game with a 9-8 record in the regular season.

Yes, it ended on Sunday.

The Bucs ran out of comebacks, and they ran out of time.

But there were plenty of memories left in their wake.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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