It was a terrible end to a terrific week for Doug Martin. Tuesday he was named to his second Pro Bowl. Wednesday the Bucs' offensive linemen, for whom he had purchased hoverboards, talked about how cool it would be for their do-it-all running back to win the NFL rushing title. Then came Sunday, two days after Christmas, and apparently still in the spirit, Martin decided to give everyone a football.
Martin's two fumbles were converted into 10 points the other way in the Bucs' 26-21 loss to the Bears before 63,734 at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs' third straight loss was a swift kick in the aspirations for coach Lovie Smith's team, which at 6-9 has to beat the Panthers in its season finale to avoid a double-digit losing season.
Carolina saw its perfect season end with a loss to the Falcons on Sunday and needs a win against the Bucs next week to clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
"It feels like a bad dream right now," said Martin, who entered the game 9 yards behind the Vikings' Adrian Peterson for the league rushing lead before being held to 49 yards on 17 carries. "That's out of character for me to fumble the ball twice in one game. I'm embarrassed.
"The stage was set for the rushing title, Pro Bowl and all that. I feel like I let the team down."
Martin wasn't alone. Quarterback Jameis Winston threw an interception at the Chicago 1-yard line in the third quarter with the Bucs leading 14-13 and in easy field goal range.
"Circumstances will allow you to be a little more aggressive," Smith said. "That wasn't one of them."
The Bucs also hurt themselves with penalties, particularly when cornerback Alterraun Verner was flagged for grabbing a face mask, which erased an interception of a tipped pass from Jay Cutler by Will Gholston that would have given the Bucs a first down at the Chicago 15 leading 7-0 in the first quarter.
Winston also missed Mike Evans and Donteea Dye on back-to-back deep passes when each receiver had gotten behind the Bears' defense. It could be argued Evans should've caught his ball, but the pass to Dye was underthrown.
"If I want to be good in this league, I have to make those throws," said Winston, who was 15 of 29 passing for 295 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. "You've got Mike Evans and arguably one of the fastest players in the league wide open, you've got to put it in the bread basket. Those got to be touchdowns."
Winston's 43-yard touchdown pass to Austin Seferian-Jenkins with 1 second remaining in the game was too little too late.
Defensively, the Bucs could not stop the Bears' running game. Using a three-headed attack of Jeremy Langford (19 carries, 83 yards), Matt Forte (11 for 54) and Ka'Deem Carey (7 for 16 and a touchdown) helped Chicago rush for 174 yards, the second most given up by the Bucs this season.
That made the job easy for Cutler, who was efficient in completing 20 of 27 passes for 156 yards and a score.
Only three weeks ago, the Bucs were 6-6 and firmly in the playoff picture. Sunday marked the third straight game in which the offense started slowly. Tampa Bay's only first-half points came off a blocked punt by linebacker Jeremiah George, with the loose ball recovered by defensive end Howard Jones at the Bears' 4. Martin ran it in for a touchdown on the next play for a 7-0 lead.
"We obviously made too many mistakes," said center Joe Hawley, whose errant snap in the fourth quarter led to the Bucs trying a 52-yard field goal by Connor Barth that was wide right. "The turnovers cost us. Story of the year.
"We stop ourselves on offense. We're a pretty good group, but each person takes a turn shooting ourselves in the foot. Hopefully we learn a lot from this year and the mistakes we've made."
It was Martin's two fumbles that sucked the life out of the Bucs' chances. Before Sunday, Martin had lost only two fumbles in 281 touches.
"The two fumbles I had were helmet to ball," Martin said. "I have to keep (the ball) tight to my body. (The Bears are) doing what defenses do, strip the ball.
"I am in shock. I feel like I let the team down. Tough one to swallow. The people who are hurting us are ourselves."