Bucs still believe in playoff dream, but road just got a lot rougher

Drew Brees, Doug Martin win game balls as Saints sink Bucs' playoff hopes (1:09)

NFL Nation reporter Mike Triplett explains why Drew Brees' fast start made Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Doug Martin less of a factor in the New Orleans Saints' 24-17 victory. (1:09)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Entering Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in prime position to push toward their first playoff berth since 2007. But after a lethargic performance in all three phases of the game, the Buccaneers are going to need a lot of help.

The Bucs remain confident headed into the final three games of the season, but they squandered a major opportunity by losing 24-17.

Tampa Bay (6-7) is two games behind both the Seattle Seahawks and the Minnesota Vikings for the final two playoff spots in the NFC. The Bucs know they are not in control of their own destiny. Still, they are not ready to see their season end.

"Absolutely," Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston replied when asked if the team is still in the race. "That's how my mind works. And I guarantee you when I get [in] there, I'm going to make sure the guys know that, too."

If the task is too daunting to overcome, the Bucs have no one to blame but themselves. From the first play of Sunday's game to the Saints' final drive, Tampa Bay could never get into a rhythm.

On the first play from scrimmage, a holding penalty wiped out a 36-yard completion to Vincent Jackson. It didn't get much better. Though running back Doug Martin was able to get yards (81 on 11 carries), the Bucs trailed for so long they could never establish him. When Winston missed his throws, most of them were high. When he needed to make something happen late in the game, Mike Evans and Donteea Dye had critical drops.

Defensively, Tampa Bay couldn't get New Orleans off the field. The Saints converted 12 of 17 third-down conversion, including four of 10 yards or longer. Tampa Bay also did not force any turnovers.

With a short week approaching, the Bucs need to clean up their mistakes and focus on a Thursday night matchup against a gritty St. Louis Rams squad.

"The message for us is we need to win a game," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "When you play like that, you want to get back on the field as soon as possible. We get our wish with the Thursday night game, but it's about us winning a game.

"There's three games left to go and we're two out of it. It's one game and us playing better ball. We didn't put a good product on the field [Sunday]."

Things were setting up nicely for Tampa Bay last week. After defeating the Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs were getting healthier and had their eyes on a 10-6 season and a likely playoff berth. Now, the road just became tougher.

"It's very disappointing because things were happening the way that we needed them to happen," cornerback Alterraun Verner said. "We just needed to win out. Things probably would have fallen into place and now we just dug ourselves a hole. We still have stuff to fight for, but that's kind of how it happened."