TAMPA — It was a horrific ending. Jameis Winston threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in overtime on the final play of the season. The Falcons flew off their sideline to join the celebration in the south end zone of Raymond James Stadium.
But when Bruce Arians gathered his team for the last time, it was somewhat surprising that all he wanted to talk about was how the season actually may have been lost at the start.
“The biggest message was I think the difference between us and the New Orleans Saints, in September they knew they were going to win the division," Arians said. “We thought we might, but we weren’t sure. And it was too late by October.
“You lose playoffs in September sometimes. A lot of people don’t like talking about that. When you start losing games in September, they come back to bite you in December and some of those did for us. I think it was ‘just maybe we’re good enough.’ Not really knowing. I think next year when we step on the field, we should know we’re good enough."
The Bucs went 2-2 in September while the Saints were 3-1 despite losing quarterback Drew Brees to a thumb injury in a Week 2 Rams loss.
That’s only a one-game difference in the standings, but the Saints managed to win their third straight NFC South title before losing to the Vikings 26-20 in overtime in the NFC wild card game Sunday.
In a way, Arians is right. Two home losses ― to the 49ers in the season opener and to the Giants two weeks later ― not only were blown opportunities, but they were loaded with clues of an impending collapse.
Every game counts the same in the NFL. You can make an argument that division games are worth more, since winning the division is the only way the Bucs are guaranteed to make the playoffs, something they haven’t done in 12 years.
But teams need to generate momentum during the season, building on wins.
The Bucs’ worst month was October, when they went 0-3. But the seeds of doubt were planted earlier.
Week 1: 49ers 31, Bucs 17
From Bradley Pinion’s first punt, which was blocked, to the pick-six that put the game away from the 49ers, the Bucs provided a template of mistakes they would follow much of the season.
No one knew the 49ers were good enough to go 13-3 and secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs when they rolled into Tampa Bay. But many mistakes in that first game under Arians were harbingers of things to come.
Cameron Brate’s touchdown reception was nullified due to a holding penalty on right tackle Demar Dotson. On the next play, tight end O.J. Howard lost a fumble.
It was the first of many plays that made some question Howard’s lack of focus. He also had a pass go off his hands that was intercepted in that game.
49ers cornerback Richard Sherman had his first interception since 2017 — and returned it for a touchdown. It was the first of six picks by Winston that would be returned for scores in 2019.
The Bucs still had a chance, trailing 23-17 with two minutes to play. But Winston was pressured on a screen pass, and instead or just dirting the football, hung a pass out for Dare Ogunbowale that was intercepted by Ahkello Witherspoon, who put the game away by running into the end zone.
Of course, no one knew then that Winston would lead the NFL with a career-high 30 interceptions, but protecting the football was still an issue.
Week 3: Giants 32, Bucs 31
No loss haunted the Bucs more than this one. They had recovered from the loss to the 49ers by winning 20-14 at Carolina four days later. The Giants, meanwhile, were 0-2 with losses to the Cowboys and Bills. Eli Manning had been benched for rookie Daniel Jones.
The Bucs blew an 18-point lead in this game. That’s significant, to say the least.
Rookie Matt Gay had a horrific day. He was good for the balance of the season, but struggled early and late. Gay missed an extra point and had a second one blocked in the first half against the Giants.
After this game, it was that clear both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin would thrive in Arians’ offense, and indeed, both had Pro Bowl seasons with more than 1,000 yards receiving. Evans finished the game with eight catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns.
But confidence was a problem on defense, particularly in the secondary. Mike Edwards dropped an interception with the Bucs leading 15-10.
On the first play of the second half, Jones connected with Evan Engram on a 75-yard touchdown pass and threw a two-point conversion toss to Sterling Shepard. Another deep ball went to Darius Slayton. Vernon Hargreaves couldn’t cover Shepard and was beaten for a touchdown pass to pull the Giants within 28-25.
That’s when Winston’s inaccuracy came into play. He threw behind Evans and was intercepted by Brian Conley in the fourth quarter.
Even Byron Leftwich’s play calling was a factor. On third and 2 from the Giants’ 5-yard line, he conservatively called a run-pass option and the handoff to Peyton Barber gained only a yard, forcing the Bucs to settle for a six-point lead.
A coverage bust with about two minutes left allowed an easy completion to Shepard. The Giants took their only lead on fourth and 5 from the 7-yard line when Jones dropped back to the 15, but with every one in man coverage, ran the football through a huge gap in the middle of the field for a touchdown.
Winston and Evans weren’t done. They connected on a deep pass to the 9-yard line. The Bucs spiked the ball with 13 seconds remaining. Winston celebrated. Bucs fans were sure their team would win. But inexplicably, rather than have Winston center the football for Gay and take a knee, the Bucs ended up with a delay-of-game penalty.
Gay was faced with a 34-yard field goal instead of one from about 26.
Arians tried to rationalize the mistake by saying they wanted to make the kick “easier” for Gay by moving the football back. But when his kick just missed wide right, shaving the upright, you had to assume it would have been good from the shorter distance before the penalty. Arians’ claim didn’t hold water.
The Bucs finished September with a huge 55-40 win against the Rams in Los Angeles. It turned out to be their only victory over a team with a winning record. They followed that up with a loss at New Orleans and Teddy Bridgewater to begin a winless October.
The Giants lost 10 in a row following their win at Tampa Bay. They were a bad football team. The Bucs were very capable of a 4-0 September. But they didn’t believe, according to Arians. Instead, 2-2 became 2-6.
The confidence finally spiked with a 2-2 November, part of a four-game win streak.
“I think we turned it around," Arians said. “The last month or so we were very competitive. Still should have won those last two ball games — learn from those mistakes and build on it. Add new players like we always do. Try to keep the best we have and move on.”
And in 2020, remember how you can lose the race to the playoffs in September.