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Buccaneers' free fall continues with fourth straight loss

TAMPA, Fla. -- Moments after the loss to the Buffalo Bills last week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter warned his players about "shattering from within" as the defeats continued to mount. One week later, after Sunday's 17-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers, which was the Bucs' fourth straight, it may be too late for that.

Safety T.J. Ward already voiced his frustration over lack of playing time, as did defensive tackle Chris Baker. Five-time Pro Bowler and team captain Gerald McCoy, who never gripes publicly, said he wasn't happy with the way he was having to line up.

Don't expect the Bucs' frustration to die down anytime soon, though, now that a season in which they were expected to contend for the division has taken a sudden free fall.

"I said that would be a big challenge for us, and it will continue to be," Koetter said, adding that he told players in the locker room "not to point fingers" and that "if they need to point fingers, point them at me."

Added center Ali Marpet: "There is nobody more frustrated than us right now. It's tough. We are not doing our jobs, so that's a problem."

Against the Panthers, quarterback Jameis Winston struggled with accuracy; he threw two interceptions and fumbled after being sacked by Julius Peppers. For the second straight week, Winston didn't throw on Wednesday or Thursday, resting his injured shoulder, before taking all the reps Friday.

He completed just 21 of 38 passes for 210 yards and no touchdowns. Koetter thought the wind played a role.

"We are NFL quarterbacks. We've got to be able to throw in the wind," said Winston, who had tossed at least one touchdown pass in eight of the previous nine games (the exception being two weeks ago against Arizona, when he injured his shoulder). "As far as completing the football, I didn't do a good job of that. We were off a little bit. Anytime I'm not completing a certain level of passes, I'm not going to be happy with my performance. I don't think I had a good performance at all today."

There were bright moments that offered glimmers of hope in the second half. Safety Chris Conte notched an interception, jumping a route on a pass intended for tight end Ed Dickson. Doug Martin broke 14-yard runs and a 17-yarder with an offensive line looking far more physical up front than they had in the first half. They got their first and only points of the day off a 41-yard field goal from kicker Patrick Murray, who is 3 for 3 since replacing Nick Folk. The defense also allowed just three Panthers third-down conversions after surrendering five of six in the first half.

But Winston's picks -- his fifth and sixth of the season -- were costly, with the first setting up a 25-yard touchdown by Kelvin Benjamin. When Luke Kuechly got his hands on another in the fourth quarter, loud boos emanated from the stands.

This was a 9-7 team last year that made significant talent upgrades -- particularly on offense -- and hasn't produced in spite of that. The Bucs' three points against the Panthers were their fewest in a game since Week 16 against the Green Bay Packers in 2014.

"Three turnovers by me -- you can't win like that, especially against a team like them," Winston said. "They have a great defense, but you turn the ball over three times, you're not going to win. You score three points, you're not going to win. ... I don't want to have a three-point game if I was playing with high school receivers. I want to win. I want to score. Yes, we've got talent and it's my job to get them the ball and I didn't do a good job of that today."

This was the third straight week in which the Bucs failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first half. Sluggish starts have become the new norm, even if the Bucs have quietly become the league's top passing team and have the league's second-most productive offense in terms of yardage. Those stats are futile without points, however, and not a good sign heading into next week's game against the New Orleans Saints, who are averaging 28.5 points a game.

"I honestly don't know why [the offense has struggled]," said wide receiver Mike Evans, who caught five passes for 60 yards. "But I know we've got to pick it up soon or the season is going to be gone. We are we, 2-5 right now? We've got more than half the season left, so we've got to pick [it] up right away. We've got to pick it up soon if we [want to] have a chance to reach our goal."

McCoy said, "Obviously we feel the frustration, but we can't let it set in. Take it one day at a time [and] one practice at a time. We're going on the road again, but it's a division opponent. We've just got to go out and win next week and we can stop the bleeding."

At this point, the playoffs aren't mathematically impossible for the Bucs. In the past five seasons, five teams have lost four straight and gone on to reach the playoffs, either by winning their division or as wild cards. With the exception of the fluky 7-8-1 Panthers from 2014, the average number of losses for those teams was 5.5. The Bucs also have to play four of their final six games against divisional foes.

It's hard to imagine this team finishing anywhere close to the top of their division, especially with the Panthers and Saints now three games ahead in the win column, although when Koetter was asked if he thought the season was slipping away, he said point-blank, "No."