TAMPA, Fla. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker swears he doesn't know if Sunday was his last game or not.
But he sure looked like he was treating it that way.
Rucker held onto what could be his final moments on the field at Raymond James Stadium after a 31-23 win over Tampa Bay, lingering to talk to kicker John Kasay, hugging guys from both sides. Then he headed for the exit, head down and downcast, when team chaplain Mike Bunkley asked for a picture.
Rucker forced a magazine-cover smile as long as he could, embraced the team's spiritual adviser and then his face sank again as he headed through the tunnel -- for perhaps the last time.
Never miss a local story.
"Like I said, I treat every game special," Rucker said. "I don't know my decision yet. If it goes one way, then I cherish those moments. If it goes the other way, then we'll have some more to cherish.
"Like I said earlier, I just need to put some sand between my feet, relax and rest. I've been going for two years strong, and I don't want to make a decision when I'm tired. I know I'm tired, my body's tired, mentally I just put a lot of work into that offseason last year, and I'm kind of wore out."
The 32-year-old twice just missed adding to his career sack total of 55.5, which leaves him one-half behind franchise record-holder Julius Peppers. If it was his final game, it was an active one, as he showed as much burst in the pass-rush than at a lot of points this season.
But just as with the team this year, he never quite got there.
The respect for him on both sides was evident after the game, as Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden opened his press conference not by addressing his loss or the playoffs, but his longtime foe.
"I would just like to say to Mike Rucker, I wish you the best if that's what you decide to do," Gruden said. "He's a great player and had a lot of great battles."
His teammates shared the sentiments, acknowledging the role he had to play this year after captains Dan Morgan and Peppers ended the year on injured reserve.
"What Ruck has brought to the team this year is leadership; for the defense, he really had to be a big part of getting us going in the right direction," defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. "Ruck has always brought that fire, that energy, that leadership. He is what epitomizes the Carolina Panthers.
"I think if he does stay, it's good that the Panthers have him one more year. If he doesn't, he's going to be missed. He's definitely going to be missed."
Odds are, he's done. But he said after the game he's going to take plenty of time to decide, take a few vacations. He'll head to the beach, but he's also part of a USO trip to Afghanistan in the spring.
Mostly, he needs to recharge his mind, saying the year-round grind of rehabbing from last year's knee injury to get back on the field left him no time to get away.
He's insisted he only wants to return if he can contribute, and said that some time to rest and further strengthening of his legs might enable him to contribute more than he did this year (three sacks).
He said he usually knows in February how he's going to respond, but refused to put a timetable on his decision.
"One, I've never been down this road before, never been in this situation," he said. "Two, I think the process will be the same for the first month. Usually in February is when your body starts gravitating, starting to get hungry again for football. That's what I'm going to be looking for. Is that hunger still there, is my body recovered? Do I feel like my platform is there I can build on, or is that platform just tired?
"I'm going to be real realistic with myself. I have pride in myself, pride in my family. And if my product and skills and talents are to a level they don't need to be, then it might be time to sit down. I'm going to really look at that hard and make a real hard decision."