TAMPA — Observations from the Buccaneers’ 34-17 loss to the Saints on Sunday:
1. Well, that will do it. Welcome, draft season. At 3-7, the Bucs have the same record this season as they did this time last season. Say Tampa Bay wins its final six games. Its chances of making the playoffs — less than a percent — barely change. Silver lining: Its chances of landing a top five pick in April’s draft just increased.
2. Meanwhile, in Carolina, Atlanta rolled to improve to 3-7, which means the loser of next week’s Bucs-Falcons game will claim sole possession of last place in the NFC South. Tampa Bay has finished last in the division in seven of the past eight seasons.
3. In Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times, we discussed the common themes in games the Bucs have won with Jameis Winston as their starting quarterback. Among them: protecting the ball, building an early lead, limiting three-and-outs, racking up first downs and forcing takeaways. They didn’t check any of those boxes against the Saints.
4. The Bucs went three-and-out on their first drive and, thanks to an interception, two-and-out on their second drive. The interception wasn’t Winston’s fault — tight end O.J. Howard lost control of the ball after catching it — but he threw three others, including one that the Saints returned for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Winston has thrown four pick-sixes this season (two vs. the 49ers, one vs. the Rams and one Sunday).
5. Winston has thrown 18 interceptions — which leads the league and ties his career high — but coach Bruce Arians said he’s responsible for about half that number.
“I would say he has 10,” he said. “Guys dropping balls and giving them to the other team — how many have we seen? I don’t count those.”
Know what else he’s not counting? Interceptions that defenders have dropped, and there’s a long history of that happening.
6. Since joining the NFL in 2015, Winston has thrown multiple interceptions in a league-high 21 games, nearly once out of every three games he plays. He has thrown four interceptions in five games. Only two players have had two such games (Andy Dalton and Sam Darnold).
7. When the Saints returned Winston’s third interception to take a 34-17 lead with about five minutes left, fans started leaving the stadium en masse. Surely, this isn’t what the Bucs envisioned when they embarked on a rebuild after the 2014 season. Or when they hired Arians in January.
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8. After his catch-turned-interception, Howard was, in every practical sense, benched. He didn’t see another pass.
“I have to be better,” he said. “I wasn’t good enough, so I had to sit on the bench. It’s part of the game.”
A quick trigger, no?
“It is, but we’re at the point now where it’s the end of the year and we’ve got a really good tight end group,” he said. “You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities.”
9. Cameron Brate, the No. 2 tight end on the team’s depth chart, became the primary tight end after the turnover. He saw 14 targets, catching 10 for 73 yards.
“Coach just told me I was taking the next series," he said, "and I think Jameis feels comfortable dumping the ball off to me and I was able to get some catches so we were kind of just sticking with what was working at that point.”
10. Brate, who has been Howard’s teammate since 2017, said he expects Howard to bounce back.
“Last year, it was kind of similar for me,” he said. “I was playing through a hip injury, and I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to play. It’s super hard. I take my job super seriously. I know O.J. does, too. We put in hours and hours of work every single week to be the best players we can be, and it hurts when you don’t play the way you want to. I’m going to be there for him, for sure.”
11. Winston’s pick-six wasn’t pretty (he overthrew Mike Evans), but it didn’t hurt the Bucs all that much. The game had long been a foregone conclusion. Before the interception, Tampa Bay had a 1.7 percent chance of winning, according to numberFire. After: 0.2 percent.
12. This one was over when the Saints took a 20-0 lead 10 minutes into the second quarter on a Drew Brees 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jared Cook. Though the Bucs answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive, they went into halftime trailing by 13 points, which for them is a nearly impossible deficit to overcome. They’ve lost 26 straight games when trailing by 13 or more points after two quarters.
13. Elsewhere in the NFL on Sunday, the Vikings trailed the Broncos by 20 points at halftime. Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins did not throw any interceptions and led his team to a 27-23 win.
14. The next time you hear someone cite the Bucs’ record in close games as evidence that the team is unlucky or due for a win, use this loss to the Saints as a counterargument. New Orleans thoroughly outclassed Tampa Bay. That’s what good teams do to mediocre and bad teams. They don’t squeak by them; they crush them.
15. The Saints were missing star cornerback Marshon Lattimore, but the Bucs could not take full advantage. Mike Evans had one catch for 6 yards in the first half. Chris Godwin had none. The pair ultimately combined for seven catches, 116 yards and a touchdown.
16. What was the point of Matt Gay’s 55-yard field goal with 11 minutes left in the third quarter? The Bucs were trailing 20-7, and it was fourth and 6. When facing an explosive offense like the Saints’, field goals aren’t going to cut it. They’re worth three points, no matter the distance.
17. Better question: What’s the point of any of this? Do we really need more proof of what we already know? I just saved you six weeks. You’re welcome.