In just four weeks, the Buccaneers went from playoff contenders to NFC South basement dwellers for the fifth straight season.
No, they didn't go to Charlotte on Sunday with a playoff berth on the line — Case Keenum and the St. Louis Rams dashed those hopes the week before Christmas — but they did go with something to prove. They went to Charlotte to prove that, even though they weren't a playoff team, they were on the rise and were going to be a threat next season. Before the game, coach Lovie Smith called the season finale against the 14-1 Carolina Panthers a "measuring stick."
But after a 38-10 loss — Tampa Bay's fourth in a row — the Bucs found themselves at 6-10 and, in a way, back to where they started in September: losing games by 28 points.
Count Jameis Winston among the players who regressed. The rookie quarterback, who threw four interceptions against the Panthers in Week 4, threw two more Sunday. In 14 other games this season, he threw a total of nine.
It was a performance Winston was eager to put behind him. His first words at his postgame news conference:
"I'm just ready for next year."
Winston didn't want to talk about becoming the third rookie in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in a single season. He didn't want to talk about whether six wins was a sign of progress for a team that won only two last season.
Instead, Winston talked about establishing a mentality in the offseason.
"We're going to create a winning mindset," he said. "A mindset that you will never give up. A relentless mindset of being able to persevere over adversity."
Then Winston suggested the Bucs' culture needs to change.
"I guarantee (there are) some of our coaches that want it more than some of our players. And that's the bad part," he said, pointing at the questioner. "That's the bad part. Our coaches want it. They want it. They're up there working hours, don't even get to see their families. … I know our coaches want it. We need to get our guys to put in the work like our coaches put in."
It's not the first time someone has questioned how badly this team wants to win.
"Every time the game is over we sit here and say, 'Oh, they made a play, we didn't,' " he said. "When are we going to get tired of that?
"I've been dealing with this for five years, I'm tired of it … you've got to get tired of losing, man.''
Depending on your perspective, Winston either said what needed to be said or made his third mistake of the day.
It's only natural to wonder now which players he was talking about and what type of work they weren't putting in. Is he talking about preparation off the field? Effort on the field?
Whether Winston is correct is beside the point. His comment put every player on the roster under additional scrutiny, deserved or not.
While he expressed frustration Sunday, Winston has been quick to defend and laud teammates throughout the season.
After since-released kicker Kyle Brindza missed three kicks in a 19-9 Week 3 loss to the Houston Texans, Winston said, "To have all that pressure on him in a game when all I have to do is put the ball in the end zone? … I miss throws every day. Every time he gets up there, he has only a small opportunity. He doesn't get as many chances as we get."
When center Joe Hawley botched a snap a week ago against the Chicago Bears, Winston said, "He had one bad snap because he's out there working his tail off and he's sweating and going against 300-pound linemen and he sweats a little bit."
One player Winston was not calling out Sunday was receiver Adam Humphries, an undrafted free agent who made the active roster after the preseason, was cut in early October and returned to the active roster about three weeks later.
"Adam Humphries is the reason we're going to win next year because that guy has it," he said. "He has it. He has the mentality. He's going out there. He's ballin'. He's relentless. He knows how to persevere. He has a chip on his shoulder."
The game changed when …
… Cam Newton completed a 41-yard pass to Devin Funchess on second-and-22 early in the second quarter.
The Bucs nearly sacked Newton on back-to-back plays, but defensive end George Johnson could not pull the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback to the ground. Newton rolled out to the right and targeted Funchess about 20 yards down the field. Safety Bradley McDougald tipped the pass, but instead of falling incomplete, it landed fortuitously in the waiting arms of Funchess — much like Jonathan Stewart's fumble in Week 4 bounced toward tight end Ed Dickson.
Upon the catch-and-run, Carolina's win probability jumped from 82.2 percent to 90.1 percent, the largest percentage-point increase of the game for the Panthers.
The game was over when …
… linebacker Thomas Davis picked off Winston's pass intended for Humphries on the Bucs' ensuing possession.
The Panthers' linebackers weren't fooled by the play-action fake and dropped into coverage. Winston, who had no receiving options underneath, tried to force the pass to Humphries on a deep crossing route. But with Davis in front and a safety over the top, the pass didn't stand a chance.
Carolina's win probability rose to 93.0 percent after the interception and never fell below 92.8 percent again.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.