The Buccaneers played well enough in the second half to win. But they're now 2-4, sinking deeper into the cellar of the NFC South, and the Carolina Panthers come to town next week. Then the Bucs are back on the road to take on the New Orleans Saints, who just moved into first place in the NFC South.
"I feel like we are the only ones that can get ourselves out because we can't keep [losing]," coach Dirk Koetter said. "It hurts. It hurts a lot, but no one is coming to save us. We dug in. We've got to dig out."
Quarterback Jameis Winston said, "I don't want to be in this position. I'm very shocked, but we've got to fix it."
There was a barrage of self-inflicted mistakes all game on both sides of the ball. The defense struggled to contain Bills dual-threat quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who threw for 268 yards and had 53 yards on the ground, and running back LeSean McCoy, who had 122 yards from scrimmage. The defense also couldn't get off the field on third down and missed tackles.
The two most devastating mistakes of all? A blown coverage on a 44-yard deep pass to Deonte Thompson with 3:14 to go, with Robert McClain getting an unnecessary roughness call trying to save the touchdown. Then Adam Humphries lost a fumble after the Bills tied the game 27-27 with 2:28 to go.
"It's something I've done a hundred times in practice and games and unfortunately, the defender made a good play on it and I've got to take care of it," Humphries said. "It's something we preach every week: You can't have turnovers. It's unfortunate that it had to happen on that last drive there, where I think momentum was [going] our way."
It didn't matter that Winston, hobbled by a sprained AC joint this week, threw three touchdowns in the second half, including two to rookie tight end O.J. Howard. Howard caught a 7-yard strike and a 33-yarder to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Winston then made a terrific throw to wide receiver Mike Evans, who slid across the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter on a 12-yard grab to give the Bucs a 27-20 lead.
The Buccaneers just couldn't get out of their own way. This wasn't a decimation like their loss in Arizona last week. This game was totally within their reach, even with a sluggish first half on offense.
"We stop ourselves on every single drive. Every day. We've got to fix that," said Winston, who threw for 300 yards for the ninth time in his career. "We fight. I know we've got it in us. We just have to find a way to do it in four quarters. Four quarters. That's what this game is. Not just two, not just three. Four."
The mistakes were glaring. There was a face mask penalty on right tackle Demar Dotson. Winston underthrew tight end Cameron Brate in the end zone. Winston lost the football on a strip sack by defensive end Ryan Davis. Then there was the 53-yard pass to DeSean Jackson in the third quarter that was negated by a holding call on Donovan Smith.
"You can't really point to one play," Koetter said. "I told the players there were probably eight to 12 plays in the game that could have changed the game had they gone the other way."
The Bucs' struggles on third down continued, and it's shocking considering they were the league's best third-down defense last year, allowing a 34.4 percent conversion rate. This year, they are 29th, allowing their opponents to convert at a 46.2 percent rate heading into Week 7. Nothing is more deflating for a defense than giving up first downs on third-and-long, as the Bucs did on Taylor's 32-yard pass to tight end Nick O'Leary on third-and-14 at the end of the third quarter.
“We consider third down like a turnover, man, getting off the field,” linebacker Lavonte David said. “We haven’t been doing that lately. We’re not helping ourselves, giving our offense as many opportunities with the ball -- we haven’t been doing that defensively. It’s something we have to fix.”
The Bucs also allowed the Bills to convert on third-and-9 and third-and-10 on the final drive of the game, with zero pressure up front.
“The game was on us to seal the deal and put it away, and we didn’t do that defensively," David said. "For guys who take a lot of pride in this game, it hurt everybody on defense.”
The Bucs finally were getting some respect this year, with some experts predicting they could win the NFC South and reach the playoffs. They certainly made the upgrades this offseason to do it -- with the exception of signing a marquee pass-rusher -- and their defensive performance in the second half of last season made that seem like a real possibility. But the chances of that happening are growing slimmer and slimmer.
"We didn't do enough today and all we can do is come back next week," Koetter said. "You can't win four, you can't win three, you can't win two -- you've got to win one."