Playoff dream likely dashed; Bucs turn attention to .500 season

Doug Martin and the Bucs have a chance to finish with a .500 record for the first time since 2010. AP Photo/Billy Hurst

ST. LOUIS -- With a 6-8 record and a last-place position among seven NFC wild-card contenders, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have virtually no chance of qualifying for the NFL's postseason party.

But that doesn't mean they have nothing for which to play for in the final two games of the season.

The Bucs still can finish at .500 for the first time since going 10-6 in 2010. And rookie quarterback Jameis Winston is more than capable of putting an exclamation point on a potential Rookie of the Year season.

"The long-term message [to the team] is that we have come up short, but we are headed in the right direction," coach Lovie Smith said Thursday night after Tampa Bay lost 31-23 to the St. Louis Rams. "We are not there yet; that is the message.

"On the road to becoming a championship team, you have to keep building and again, we are not there yet. We will get there eventually."

The Bucs appeared to be trending that way by winning back-to-back games last month and three of four to reach 6-6 by beating Atlanta on Dec. 6. But in a five-day span, the bottom dropped out, with losses Sunday to New Orleans and Thursday to the Rams.

Smith used the terms "disappointing" or "disappointment" four times in remarks to the media after the loss in St. Louis. He also threw a "tough" in there. In short, he was crestfallen about the team's performance with so much on the line, allowing a score on the Rams' first possession and trailing 21-3 at intermission.

But the coach could see through the disappointment and find positives. For instance, Winston was dynamic in the fourth quarter, completing 18 of 27 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns en route to a career-high 363 yards for the game. Receiver Mike Evans caught nine passes for 157 yards, and running back Doug Martin carried the ball 18 times for 91 yards. Tampa finished with 509 yards overall, outgaining the Rams by 190 yards and nearly doubling their first-down total, 30-16.

"The good thing is Doug Martin still did what he does; he showed up to play," Winston said. "Mike Evans showed up to play. [Receiver] Adam Humphries showed up to play."

Winston was critical of his own performance, particularly in the first three quarters, when he completed just 11 of 23 pass attempts for 125 yards. He also threw an interception in the fourth.

"In these situations, the quarterback has to show up and play," he said.

The loss Thursday was "a lesson learned; you've just got to learn a lesson and move forward," Winston said. "The season's not over yet. What we wanted, our playoff hopes, they're probably done, but the season isn't over yet. We're still going to compete. We're still going to go out there and fight and try to go 8-8."

The Bucs have time to regroup over the next 10 days before hosting Chicago on Dec. 27. They close the season on the road Jan. 3 vs. undefeated Carolina, but who's to say how long Cam Newton and the Panthers' other top players will play, or whether they play at all?

"We have a long break; we are going to heal up, but we still haven't played our best ball," Smith said. "We still want to talk about the progress we made [this season] and all of the good things. We came up short at the end, but we're trending up and moving forward. There is still a lot at stake."

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy agreed, saying: "All we can do at this point is try to finish as strong as possible. We've still got two more opportunities, which is how I look at it. There are two more opportunities to ... go have fun, and try to get two big wins."