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Tom Jones: This loss will haunt Bucs the most

Saints cornerback Sterling Moore brings down Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans after a reception in the second half, in which Evans scores as the Bucs play catchup.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Saints cornerback Sterling Moore brings down Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans after a reception in the second half, in which Evans scores as the Bucs play catchup.

NEW ORLEANS — When the autopsy of the 2016 Bucs season is performed, you will discover several pivotal moments as to why they came up short of the playoffs.

There will be the horrible loss in a lightning storm at home to the hapless Rams. That overtime loss to the Raiders where Oakland committed like 86 penalties. Even the Dallas game will sting, seeing as how the Bucs had the ball and a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

But ultimately, Saturday's 31-24 loss against the Saints is the one that will haunt the Bucs. This is the one that will leave a mark.

The one that got away in a season that got away.

Playing against a Saints team that is looking forward to golf season, the Bucs couldn't find a way to win when they needed a win in the worst way.

And that's kind of how the Bucs played — in the worst way.

An offense that sputtered. Special teams that bumbled. And a defense simply asked to do too much that bended and bended and bended and finally broke. Add all that up and the Bucs couldn't avoid losing a game that they really couldn't afford to lose.

"We played hard enough. We just didn't play good enough," coach Dirk Koetter said.

Now comes next week's home game against Carolina. When the Bucs walked off the field Saturday night, they needed a win and help to make the playoffs. Lots of help. We're talking miracle stuff. Otherwise, they would miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.

Maybe they deserve to miss them after Saturday.

Want to make the playoffs? Want to be considered a good team? Want to prove you're not the same ol' Bucs?

Then find a way to win games like Saturday's. Find a way to win games you're supposed to win if you want to be taken seriously. Find a way to go on the road and beat a team that you beat just two weeks ago.

But Tampa Bay couldn't pull it off. It was outplayed and outclassed.

Oh, and if you want some controversy to go with a big heaping plate of humble pie, the Bucs provided that, too. Running back Doug Martin — the guy who signed a five-year deal worth $35.75 million in May — watched the game in street clothes. He was benched, putting his future, and certainly the rest of this season, in doubt.

Then again, the 2016 season likely will last only one more game because the Bucs got the shakes Saturday.

We're now looking at two consecutive December collapses. Last season the Bucs finished the season with four consecutive losses to sabotage a 6-6 record. That cost them a playoff spot and Lovie Smith his job. Now, two consecutive losses after an 8-5 start had their playoff hopes on life support.

The seeds of this loss were planted in the first half when Tampa Bay mustered a mere seven points, a total way too low against a less-than-stellar Saints defense. And way too low for an offense with postseason expectations.

Not only didn't the offense do enough to help, it did plenty to hurt.

The nails-in-the-coffin moments came at the start of the second half. First, kick returner Josh Huff (why is he here again?) bungled the opening kickoff and saddled Tampa Bay with crummy field position inside its 5.

Two plays later, Jameis Winston made a horrible decision and threw an even more horrible pass. It was intercepted and returned to the Bucs 13. New Orleans' Mark Ingram raced into the end zone on the next play, and though that didn't officially end the game, it was a turn of events the Bucs couldn't overcome.

Tampa Bay didn't go down without a fight, but it did go down. Winston threw another bad pick. The defense couldn't hold the Saints when it mattered.

A crushing loss.

One the Bucs and their fans almost certainly will remember when the playoffs start without them.

Tom Jones: This loss will haunt Bucs the most 12/24/16 [Last modified: Saturday, December 24, 2016 9:26pm]
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