Bucs' season appears over after loss at Rams

Jameis Winston (3) of the Bucs  is sacked by Eugene Sims (97) of the St. Louis Rams in the first quarter. [Getty Images]
Jameis Winston (3) of the Bucs is sacked by Eugene Sims (97) of the St. Louis Rams in the first quarter. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 18, 2015

ST. LOUIS — So much was lost by the Bucs in the 31-23 whuppin' they took from the Rams on Thursday night. They lost their second game in five days. They lost their chance for a winning season. They almost assuredly lost the last sliver of hope to stay alive for a wild-card spot and will be officially eliminated if the Vikings and Seahawks win Sunday.

They lost their heart and, judging from all the pushing and shoving, they lost their heads.

More than anything, they blew a chance to show the Show Me State and national TV audience they are not the same ol' Bucs that was the worst team in the NFL and embarrassed in their only prime time game a year ago.

Now the party is over, and the promise, it seems, all but gone, too.

"I thought we would play better from start to finish,'' coach Lovie Smith said. "Tonight we didn't see a lot to be excited about.''

How bad were the Bucs, who made the final score respectable with two late touchdowns but failed to recover an onside kick after Jameis Winston's 9-yard scoring pass to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins with 1:34 left?

Rams quarterback Case Keenum, who had passed for one touchdown all season and was best known for being concussed, passed for 175 yards and two scores in the first half alone. His 60-yard scoring bomb to Kenny Britt was the longest play against the Bucs all season.

"The bad thing is we knew what was at stake,'' Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. "We let this game get away from us."

Meanwhile, Winston, who had a chance to stake his claim to the NFL's offensive rookie of the year award, was ineffective against a swarming defense. He went 6-of-12 for 49 yards in the first half and was whacked on nearly every attempt before he settled in. He finished 29-for-50 for 363 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, setting career highs for completions, attempts and yards.

"One of those days; we had plenty of opportunities," Winston said. "First half I didn't play well enough to win. Got to learn a lesson.

"Our playoff hopes are probably done. But we got a lot to play for. Our mentality doesn't change."

Only running back Doug Martin, who passed the Vikings' Adrian Peterson to take over the league's rushing lead, played his game for the Bucs. He finished with 91 yards on 18 carries.

But even Martin's night was soured when he lost a fumble to start the second half.

The optics weren't good for this game, in which each team wore their color-rush jerseys. The Rams were in mustard yellow, the Bucs in ketchup red. So naturally, yes, the Bucs played catch-up all night.

This was likely the Rams' last game in St. Louis. Their owner, Stan Kroenke, has announced plans to move to Los Angeles.

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If you think the Bucs have struggled, consider that the Rams, who moved to St. Louis in 1995, have not had a winning season since 2003. Fans broke out chants of "Beat L.A.'' and Kroenke (stinks).'

Only twice this season had the Rams passed for 200 yards. When Keenum did that in the first half, the rout was on.

This game went bad from the start. The Rams' Bennie Cunningham returned the opening kickoff to the 43-yard line. Six plays later, Tavon Austin was in the end zone after taking a screen pass 17 yards for a touchdown.

Connor Barth got the Bucs within 7-3 with a 53-yard field goal with 4:52 left in the first quarter. But rookie cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah was beaten on a double move by Britt for the long touchdown, and Todd Gurley scored on a 3-yard run.

The Bucs had one drive end when Martin was dropped for a 2-yard loss on fourth and 1 from the Rams 23. Another promising march to start the second half was bogged down by penalties and a dropped pass in the end zone by rookie Donteea Dye.

Austin got his second touchdown on an end-around. The Bucs weren't really missing tackles as much as making business decisions. For good measure, the Bucs gave up a 102-yard kickoff return to Cunningham to set up another Rams field goal.

Think back to Sunday, when the Bucs were 6-6 and playing the struggling Saints, whom they already had beaten in New Orleans. They were in the playoff race. A winning record seemed likely. Raymond James Stadium was full, the sun was out and the birds were singing.


Well, at 6-8, the Bucs would need a win at home against Chicago in 10 days and an upset at Carolina just to break even.

Look, if the Bucs win even the next two games, taking a helicopter view of the season, you would have to say it was a success.

The Bucs have their franchise quarterback in Winston, who never stopped fighting, throwing a touchdown pass to Luke Stocker to start the fourth quarter to cap a 98-yard drive. Receiver Mike Evans is showing signs of coming back to life. If they can re-sign Martin, that position is set.

"Disappointment tonight. But big picture, we are heading in the right direction," Smith said. "We still haven't played our best ball. There's a lot to finish strong for."

As Smith says, how you finish matters. Well, they look finished. That's a shame, because the season sure seemed like the start of something.