INDIANAPOLIS -- A victory Sunday would have put the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over .500 for the first time since 2012, but what's another couple of weeks when you've already waited three years?
The Bucs remained optimistic about making the playoffs following their 25-12 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and even at 5-6, they believe they can finish with the franchise's first winning record since 2010.
"Today we didn't play well, but everything we have, all of our goals, are still in front of us," head coach Lovie Smith said. "There's no room for error now with six losses, but we are going to come back against Atlanta and [this loss] is going to be a distant memory for us."
Sunday's loss blunted the momentum established by three wins in the previous four games, but the remaining schedule offers hope. The next two games are at home against teams the Bucs have already defeated on the road -- the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. They follow with games at the St. Louis Rams (4-7), Chicago Bears (5-6) and Carolina Panthers (11-0).
"When I talk to the guys, I can't stress enough, we have been here before," said rookie Jameis Winston, whose version of "before" is confined to this season. "The season is not over. We've got to keep playing."
Winston was referring to the team's 1-3 start, from which it had rebounded nicely. But for the Bucs to regain their momentum, they'll need to cut down on the penalties that cost them dearly in Sunday's loss to the Colts. They were flagged 12 times for 95 yards, more than double the yardage (45) the Colts gave up in penalties. Tampa Bay entered the game ranked as the fourth-most penalized team in the NFL and no doubt "improved" on that ranking.
A few were particularly costly. Offensive tackle Kevin Pamphile was called for holding on a 2-yard touchdown run by Doug Martin in the second quarter, forcing the Bucs to settle for a field goal that tied the score at six. Logan Mankins was called for an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after a missed field goal in the third quarter, setting up the Colts at Tampa Bay's 41-yard line and leading to a field goal that gave them a 19-12 lead. Then, in the fourth quarter, Chris Conte was called for leaping over the Colts' line to attempt to block a field goal. That penalty set up Indianapolis' final touchdown.
"We'd been doing a pretty good job of avoiding the penalties the last couple of weeks, but they kind of killed us today," said tight end Cameron Brate, who caught a 20-yard pass from Winston for the Bucs' only touchdown in the second quarter.
The most encouraging aspect of the loss for Tampa Bay fans was the calm and optimism with which it was accepted in the locker room. There were no hints of finger-pointing or complaining, just a stream of optimistic clichés.
If anyone had a right to be angry, it was Martin. He had gained 235 yards in the previous week's victory over the Philadelphia Eagles -- second-most in franchise history -- and seemed poised to record his 12th 100-yard rushing game against a porous Colts defensive line. He gained 90 yards in the first half, 56 on a run in the second period that set up Brate's touchdown reception.
He settled for two carries and seven yards in the second half, as the Bucs took to the air to catch up.
"We got behind, so we passed the ball," he said politely afterward. "That's just how it played out.
"We were excited for this game. We had a lot of energy going into this game. We hung ourselves today and we'll find a way to cut that out."
Winston could have been a little angry, too, about his lack of protection. One week after throwing five touchdown passes, he was sacked five times -- and often had to throw on the run to avoid more. Brate took note of the "constant pressure" on his quarterback, but Winston took the blame.
"I've got to get rid of the football," he said. "It's about rhythm. The offensive line did an amazing job.
"We just have to execute and make the plays when we need to make them," he added. "That's on me."