TAMPA — In the end, it felt like more than just a football game was lost Sunday for the Bucs.
Their chance for the final NFC wild-card berth has only a faint pulse. At 6-7, their hope of a winning season can fit in a teaspoon. And the 24-17 defeat to the Saints and their historically bad defense also didn't instill much confidence heading into a nationally televised game at St. Louis in four days.
The 62,138 fans who jammed Raymond James Stadium couldn't be blamed for giving Tampa Bay one big sitting ovation.
"I wish I could sit up here and tell you someone played well. They didn't," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "Just being real, none of us … of course, starting with the head football coach, that's as bad a job as I've done."
New Orleans' Drew Brees passed for 312 yards and two touchdowns while rookie Jameis Winston and the Bucs offense had trouble mustering first downs against the league's worst defense in points and yards allowed.
Brees passed Hall of Famer Dan Marino for fourth place on the career touchdown list, treating every third down like he was throwing poison darts. The Saints had 12 third-down conversions, tying for the second most in a game this season.
Winston didn't exceed the 100-yard passing mark until the fourth quarter as the Bucs had only one first down in their first three drives.
"He was amazing," Winston said of Brees. "When you convert four third and extra longs? I mean, when you're playing against the best, we knew it as an offense, we've got to show up. And I blame this loss on Drew Brees just outplayed me. This was the game for me to have a breakout game and put some points on the board, and he played better.
"You look at the way the game turned out, Drew Brees, they converted a lot on their third downs and we didn't. That's why I say for quarterback play, me as a quarterback lost the battle to Drew Brees, definitely in the third-down competition."
The Saints converted a third and 21, a third and 11, and a third and 15.
And yet, despite starting in a 14-0 hole, the Bucs got within a touchdown when Winston connected with receiver Adam Humphries on a 6-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter. They had the ball near midfield, trailing by seven, with 4:21 left in the game when they decided to punt on fourth and 10 and three timeouts remaining. But the Bucs never got the ball back as the Saints used discarded running back Tim Hightower and a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Alterraun Verner to help pick up three first downs and run out the clock.
"We had a shot right up until (the end) with all the things we did wrong," Smith said. "Dropped passes, overthrown passes. Not making tackles, not making plays, bad calls on my part. Even with all that, we had a chance right up until the end. The end offensively when we had the football. We could've made a couple plays. Defensively, we could've gotten a couple stops, or at least one stop. But we weren't making plays today."
For the record, Smith didn't regret punting the football away: "I would make the same decision 10 out of 10 times on that."
Playing without running back Mark Ingram (shoulder) who went on injured reserve this week, the Saints turned to Hightower, who had amassed only 48 yards since the start of the 2012 season. Against the Bucs, Hightower ran for 85 yards on 28 carries.
Winston never got on track. He was only 11 of 21 passing for 98 yards until going 7-of-8 for 84 on the drive resulting in Humphries' touchdown. The Saints also virtually shut out receiver Mike Evans, who had no targets in the first half and finished with three catches for 39 yards. He also was called for his fifth offensive pass interference of the season and followed it up with a personal foul on the next play.
The Bucs offense was bad from the first play — a 36-yard pass to Vincent Jackson that was negated by left tackle Donovan Smith's holding penalty — to their last two plays. Winston overthrew an open Charles Sims, who had badly beaten linebacker Dannell Ellerbe down the sideline at the Saints 20, but Winston insisted his running back was held. "It would've been right on the money," he said. On the next play, rookie receiver Donteea Dye dropped a pass that would've given the Bucs a first down around the Saints 35 with 4:21 left.
Winston said he believes the Bucs still have the postseason to play for.
"Absolutely. That's how my mind works," Winston said. "I guarantee you when I get there Monday, I'm to make sure the guys know that, too."