Bucs move the wrong direction: Away from playoffs

by Gary Shelton on December 25, 2016 · 2 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Winston had two more costly interceptions against Saints.

Winston had two more costly interceptions against Saints.

Monday, 4 a.m.

Well, bah.

And furthermore, humbug.

If this was indeed the biggest game in years for the Tampa Bay Bucs, well, it ended as the biggest disappointment. So much for the division title. So much for the favorite's shot at the playoffs. After a 31-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints, it felt like another coal-in-the-stocking Christmas. It felt like another year without a pony. It felt like another season on the wrong side of the nice-naughty list (the one where teams have clinched the playoffs by the 15th game).

What it felt like was just another lousy finish for the Tampa Bay Bucs, who seem to fold up after Thanksgiving. Remember that five-game winning streak? It was a tease. Nothing more. A mirage. A double-reverse with a stumble at the end.

Oh, I know, I know. Officially, the Bucs are not eliminated from the post-season. There is still hope. But it would take a loaves-and-fishes level of miracle. The Bucs are on the outside of the ledge where

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you can see the wild-card race, where you have to scramble and chase and scoreboard watch. In one game, they went from playoff favorites to outsiders.

How do we sum up the team's playoff's chances? Well, they're in a foreign language, and you need calculus to get there, and a Rubik's Cube is involved. Carry the one, and a lot of teams have to lose. And the Bucs have to win, which may be the hard part.

And why?

Well, because they couldn't win the sequel game … again.

Think about this: Over the last two seasons, the Bucs are 5-1 in their first games against division rivals. The second time they have played them? They are 1-4 (with Carolina awaiting next week). So what is that? Coaching? Injuries? Players? Either way, it's a disturbing stat. Teams are supposed to get stronger and smarter and hungrier as a season goes along, not the other way around.

The Bucs simply weren't good enough on Saturday. The offense wasn't crisp enough. The defense wasn't strong enough. Frankly, the team didn't play like a playoff team. It didn't leave you with the feeling it would have been capable of going very far in the post-season.

"We played hard," said Koetter. "We played hard enough, we just didn't play good enough today. The turnovers [were critical], as it is in many games, those two turnovers led to two touchdowns and we didn't get any the other way. When you have two turnovers like that lead to 14 quick points against a quarterback like they have, it's just going to be tough sledding if you don't take it away on the other end."

Consider Saturday:

There was Jameis Winston, who threw for 277 yards, but who threw two interceptions. These were not the end-of-the-half interceptions. They weren't the bounced-off-the-receiver's-hands interceptions. These were throwing to the wrong spot and the wrong jersey interceptions.

There was Doug Martin, helmet unattached. Martin couldn't even find his way to the field. Last year, Martin was the second-best running back in the NFL. This year, he isn't one of the Bucs' top four. You go figure. Either the Bucs made a mistake when they re-signed Martin, or they made one Saturday when they chose to play without him.

There was the run defense, which gave up 123 yards. New Orleans has the 17th-ranked running game in the league.

There was the pass defense, which gave up 299 yards throwing to Drew Brees. Brees threw three picks when the teams played last; this time, he threw none. It's odd. If you look at the history of the Bucs playing against Brees, you'll see they fare better in games where they put pressure on him. The previous four games, in fact, the Bucs had 11 sacks and 2-2 record. But pressure didn't happen nearly often enough Saturday.

There was the lousy start to the second half, where Josh Huff botched yet another kickoff, and the team followed with no gain and an interception.

"Much like an earlier game this year, when we have bad plays we have a tendency to string them too close together," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "It was a bad play on that kickoff, then we had a no gain on a run and then a second-and-10 interception. It was just a bad string of plays right there, a bad way to start the second half. It was a one-score game and then right off the bat we make it a two-score game."

In the years since winning the Super Bowl, the Bucs have made the playoffs only twice. The last of those was the 2007 season.

The reason, most times, has been simple.

They weren't special enough.

So how will you look back on this season? As a start, maybe. As a nice little winning streak, maybe. As a step for Winston, maybe.

But special?

No. In the end, these Bucs weren't special enough.

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