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Why this is the biggest Bucs game of the season

TAMPA — It’s only the sixth game of the season.

Pretty early to have already arrived at the edge of the cliff. And yet, here we are. The Bucs are at the edge of the cliff. Looking down.

A loss Sunday against the lowly Browns (1 p.m., FOX) and the Bucs’ season pretty much goes over the side. Cue up the long-whistle-to-splat-on-the-ground sound effect.

I don’t want to hear about how the Browns are improved. I don’t want to hear about young hot-shot quarterback Baker Mayfield. They’re still the Browns. They’re still the team that has won only four of its past 45 games. This is still a team that hasn’t won a road game since Oct. 11 of, get this, 2015! The last time they won a road game before that was November of 2014.

Last week, the Browns got annihilated at home by the Chargers.

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It’s still one bad football team.

If the Bucs can’t win this game, which game are they going to win? If the Bucs can’t win this game, what does it say about them?

This was a game everyone circled when the schedule came out. This was a “W.” Mark it down. In ink. Jameis has already eaten it.

Suddenly, however, this game doesn’t look or feel like such a sure thing. Nothing ever is with the Bucs.

So now you might understand why the Bucs are looking over the cliff and into the abyss.

Let’s be blunt. The Bucs cannot lose this game.

Lose this game and this season will start to look like the Titanic. Lose this game bad enough and just-fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith might get some company on the unemployment line. Lose this game and you might as well pack it up and start thinking about next season because this season will be just about over.

That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Like I just said, this is only the sixth game of a 16-game season. Even if the Bucs lose, their record will still be 2-4. There would still be 10 games left to turn things around and make a postseason run. Heck, as long as you can get to .500 in early December, you still have a chance.

But it’s hard to imagine this team ever being .500 again this season if they can’t win this lay-up of a game against the Browns.

Funny thing is, the Browns are probably saying the same things about the Bucs. The Browns might have circled this game on their schedule.

Why wouldn’t they?

The Bucs have lost three in a row. Their quarterback has, once again, cranked up his turnover machine. The defense is such a hot mess that the Bucs fired their defensive coordinator and replaced him with a guy who hasn’t been a defense coordinator since 2002. The last time Mark Duffner ran a defense, Vita Vea was 7 years old.

Sorry if I’m not convinced that a Bucs defense under Duffner will look any better than the Bucs defense under Smith.

So is there any bright spot here? Any reason for hope?

Well, we could play the old If-I-Had-Told-You-Before-The-Season game, you might find a silver lining.

If you had told the Bucs before the season that they would play road games against the Saints, Falcons and a much-improved Bears team and home games against the Browns, the defending champion Eagles and traditional power Pittsburgh and that  Jameis Winston would start only two of those games and the Bucs would end up 3-3, they would take it every single time.

But the past three games — all losses in which the Bucs gave up a grand total of 112 points — have completely gutted this team’s confidence. And anyone’s confidence in it.

Which leads us to where we are now: the edge of the cliff.

Looking down.

The question is: will they fall down?

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones

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