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Bucs on brink of elimination after 31-24 loss to Saints

NEW ORLEANS — Jameis Winston had the will, but once again he couldn't find a way. No way to score more than a touchdown in the first half. No way to keep from throwing two interceptions or from losing a second straight game.

The Bucs left themselves virtually no way to reach the playoffs after a 31-24 loss to the Saints on Saturday.

"We didn't play good enough to win here," Winston said. "Their quarterback played better. … I turned it over twice. and he turned it over zero. That's how it goes in the NFL."

The Saints' Drew Brees passed for 299 yards and a touchdown and Mark Ingram ran for two scores.

Unfortunately, here's what's becoming a holiday tradition. Something you can begin to count on. When the air turns cold, the Bucs offense grows colder.

Given a chance to finish the final month of the season strong and possibly break their nine-year playoff drought, the Bucs forgot how to start fast, make first downs, keep the football and score.

On Saturday, the offense disappeared like their starting running back.

You have to give coach Dirk Koetter credit for trying to shake things up. He benched a healthy Doug Martin, the league's second-leading rusher in 2015 and $7 million running back, for Jacquizz Rodgers, who was inactive at Dallas last week.

Martin said he was informed Saturday. "I knew a couple days ago," Martin said. "It was coach's decision. He wanted to put the best guys on the field that can help us win the game. I respect his decision."

Rodgers ran better than Martin, gaining 63 yards on 15 carries and scoring a touchdown. But the Bucs only managed one score in the first half. Winston's furious rally in the second half fell short.

The defeat realistically ended the 8-7 Bucs' playoff hopes. Atlanta (10-5) clinched the NFC South with a win at Carolina. The Packers (9-6) and Redskins (8-6-1) won Saturday. Tampa Bay has maybe a 1 percent chance with too many scenarios needed to list.

Sure, the Bucs defense had its fingerprints on this one as well. But you knew Brees would be hard to hold down for the second time in 13 days.

The Bucs trailed 28-14 when Winston tried to bring them back. He did throw a pair of touchdown passes Saturday, but Winston also was intercepted twice by safety Jairus Byrd.

Trailing 13-7, the Bucs suffered through another catastrophe of plays to start the second half. Josh Huff failed to pick up a bouncing kickoff cleanly and was tackled at the Tampa Bay 4.

Winston compounded the mistake with his first interception — a deep ball into double coverage to Mike Evans that Byrd returned to the Tampa Bay 14, setting up Ingram's touchdown run to make it 20-7.

"That was just a crazy play on my part," Winston said. "No one was open. I tried to give my guy a chance."

The second pick came with the Bucs trailing 31-21 in the fourth quarter.

For the past couple weeks, this has become a pattern for the offense. It wasn't much different than last Sunday in Dallas, when the Bucs managed only two field goals in the first half.

It wasn't really any different than last year. Remember when the Bucs were 6-6? They lost four straight, and for as much blame was placed on coach Lovie Smith for his defense, it was the offense that also collapsed.

Over the final four games of 2015, with an offense directed by Koetter, the Bucs scored a touchdown in the first half of exactly two games.

Entering Sunday, the Bucs had only averaged 19.4 points. Koetter felt he had to roll the dice a bit and bench Martin, who hasn't been the same running back since returning from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss six games.

"We only had room for one primary ball carrier today," Koetters said. "And we felt it was better this game to go with Quizz."

What hurt feelings it may have caused between Martin and the Bucs remains to be seen. Martin signed a five-year, $35.75 million contract as a free agent with the Bucs last March with $15 million guaranteed.

The Bucs still have a chance to beat Carolina on Jan. 1 and finish with a winning record, something that hasn't happened since 2010 when they finished 10-6 under Raheem Morris.

But it's also just as likely they could lose their third in a row, which doesn't feel much different than when they lost four in a row to end 2016.

"This (next) game is huge, just to jumping us into next season," Winston said. "God willing we get a playoff pass. We'd love that. But the main thing is to focus. Finish the season strong. Hold nothing back."

Bucs on brink of elimination after 31-24 loss to Saints 12/24/16 [Last modified: Saturday, December 24, 2016 10:03pm]
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