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TAMPA, Fla. — Playoffs? Did someone say playoffs? It’s hard to believe that just eight days ago, we were seriously contemplating a postseason run by the Bills.

For the first three months, this season did have a different feel. They were in almost every game. They never seemed to quit. Their fortunes finally appeared to be turning in the first year of the Doug Marrone-EJ Manuel era.

But halfway through Sunday’s 27-6 loss to the Buccaneers, I experienced a familiar stabbing sensation, one that has hit me in countless dark Decembers over the years. It occurred to me that the team getting humiliated in front of my eyes might be the worst team in the NFL.

You saw the game. You tell me a team they’d beat. Jacksonville? Let’s see what the oddsmakers have to say about the Bills at Jags next week. Houston? Put them on a neutral field, with Matt Schaub and EJ Manuel at quarterback, and I like the Texans. Atlanta? Oh, they already lost to the Falcons at “home.”

There have been encouraging signs this season. A few plays here and there could have made a world of difference. Still, time never stands still in the NFL.

You judge what’s in front of you, and it’s hard to see any genuine signs of progress after watching the Bills get shredded by a bad Bucs team.

“We looked like crap,” said running back Fred Jackson. “Bottom line. We did not play well.”

Really, if they had played a contender, one with a veteran quarterback and more receivers who weren’t from Rutgers, the Bills might have lost by 40. They were bad in every possible way. The defense gave up an 80-yard touchdown on the game’s second play from scrimmage, and a 38-yard TD pass later in the first quarter.

Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined for 34 yards on 16 carries. Leodis McKelvin fumbled away a punt. The Bills had 11 penalties for 114 yards. Four of the starting offensive linemen had at least one infraction. When Doug Legursky is your shining light, you know you have problems.

“Bad,” said Eric Wood, “but you show me any offensive line that played good when you’re down 21 points in the second quarter. I’d love to see it.”

Wood said the Bucs were able to “tee off” once they got the lead. The Bucs did send extra rushers on some of their seven sacks. They also got pressure with four men at times. And the Bills didn’t fall behind by 21 points until the final seconds of the first half.

It’s not as if NFL teams aren’t capable of making up two-touchdown deficits. Oh wait, didn’t the Falcons come back from 14-0 down just one week earlier in the Rogers Centre? Wood admitted the home crowd wasn’t any more a factor in Tampa than it had been in Toronto.

The problem, of course, was that Manuel was playing quarterback, and he wasn’t up to making the throws on the road. Manuel was awful. He was 18 of 33 for 184 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions. It was the first time a Bills quarterback had four picks and zero TDs in a game since Drew Bledsoe in 2004.

At least one of the interceptions wasn’t Manuel’s fault. Early in the second quarter, Manuel threw a short pass that deflected off Stevie Johnson’s hands and was intercepted by linebacker Lavonte David. Asked about it later, Johnson said it was early in the game and “that don’t really matter.”

In his next breath, Johnson said Marrone talked about accountability after the loss. Johnson said it was important for the players to “get real” with each other. If his idea of getting real is shrugging off a pass that led to an interception, he really doesn’t get it. With that sort of leadership, it’s no surprise the Bills have struggled to come back from difficult losses.

After the defeat in Toronto, Marrone talked about the importance of bouncing back emotionally. He said it was a big part of a team’s evolution. So what happened? His team came out flat, same as it had at Pittsburgh the week after the heartbreaking loss to the Chiefs.

Marrone referred back to the Steelers game. It was clear that he felt his team hadn’t learned from the experience, and that the Bills still lacked the resilient quality of a real contender. Against the Bucs, they looked like a team that hadn’t gotten over the loss to the Falcons.

“Kansas City was a difficult loss,” Marrone said. “I think you earn the right to be upset about it. But the next week, I don’t think we bounced back like we should. And I feel the same way today. Did that bother me, that we didn’t take that challenge and overcome that? Absolutely. Absolutely, that’s bothersome.”

For the first time, I saw a little quit in them. They looked like a team that had begun to feel sorry for itself, that made a lot of the same old mistakes and hung its head when things went against them. That’s when it started to remind me of past Decembers, when foolish hope turned to jolting reality.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. I’d hate to question the legend of Kiko Alonso, but the rookie was late again on a long run, failing to get to Bobby Rainey in time to prevent the longest run and quickest score in Buccaneers history. At least Alonso said it was unacceptable, not that it “didn’t matter.”

But if we’re following a thread from the Steelers game, the common denominator was the play of the rookie quarterback. Manuel dragged them down in Pittsburgh, one week after the K.C. loss. He couldn’t make nearly enough big throws to lift them out of their collective funk against the Bucs.

Manuel was outplayed by a fellow rookie, Mike Glennon, who was 9 for 25 for 90 yards. Manuel has now played four road games. He’s been terrible in three (Jets, Steelers, Bucs) and gotten hurt in the other (Cleveland). Things will not be truly different for the Bills unless he learns to play well on the road.

He’s only a rookie. It takes time. But it was hard to see progress. For the first time, the name “J.P. Losman” crossed my mind. Losman played here in the second week of the ’05 season, in his second start. He threw for 113 yards. The Bills gave up 191 yards rushing in a 19-3 loss. Sorry, it’s hard not to see parallels.

This was the Bills’ first road game since Pittsburgh. Put them side by side and it’s not a pretty picture for EJ. It’s not fair to put it all on the quarterback, but when a team is young and lacking the confidence to battle through tough times, it doesn’t help to have a novice at the most important position.

“It starts with me,” Manuel said. “I’m the quarterback. I’m the leader. These guys feed off me, and I’m supposed to be facilitating the ball to these guys. I didn’t do a good job today, plain and simple.”

Nothing went right for them Sunday. The Bills were late getting out of Tampa because of a mechanical issue with their plane. In five days, they’ll turn around and head back to Florida, to resume a season that has quickly gone south.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com