TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Jameis Winston has helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers become relevant again.
The team’s first winning season in six years, capped by Sunday’s 17-16 victory over Carolina, didn’t produce a playoff berth. Nevertheless, finishing 9-7 after stumbling to a 3-5 start is clearly a step in the right direction for a franchise that hasn’t qualified for the postseason since 2007 .
“We’re not where we want to be,” coach Dirk Koetter said, “but we’re getting better.”
The No. 1 overall pick from the 2015 draft threw a 10-yard scoring pass to Mike Evans to snap a fourth-quarter tie and became the first player in NFL history to start his career with consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. The 22-year-old also broke club single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns, while falling 64 yards short of Andrew Luck’s league standard of 8,196 for the first two years of a career.
“I wanted to make it to the playoffs,” said Winston, who finished 20 of 35 with one interception and a fumble. He broke Josh Freeman’s team records for passing yards and touchdowns in a season, finishing with 4,090 yards and 28 TDs.
“My individual statistics don’t mean a lot,” Winston added. “Maybe when I get older, maybe I’ll look back and laugh at it with my grandkids. Right now … I just want to continue to get better.”
Tampa Bay entered the regular-season finale clinging to extremely slim playoff hopes, needing to beat the Panthers and have six other games end with favorable results, including Washington finishing with a tie against the New York Giants.
They didn’t get the necessary help, but Koetter wasn’t discouraged.
“`I’m not the most patient person in the world. I think we have to remind ourselves, this is a tough league where every team has really good players and really good coaches,” the Bucs coach said. “I believe a team is judged on how close they come to achieving up to their talent level. I’ll be honest with you, I think this team did a pretty good job in that area.”
Winston’s TD pass to Evans put the Bucs up 17-10 with 3:10 remaining. Newton, however, moved the Panthers (6-10) right down the field, with help of a 47-yard pass to Kelvin Benjamin and two fourth-down passes to set up a 5-yard scoring pass to trim Carolina’s deficit to one with 17 seconds left.
Instead of kicking the extra point, the defending NFC champions opted to go for 2 points. Newton’s pass intended for Greg Olsen was batted away by safety Bradley McDougald as the Panthers tight end slipped in the end zone.
Newton, who played the entire game despite aggravating a shoulder injury, completed 18 of 32 passes for 237 yards, but was intercepted three times. Brent Grimes returned one of the picks 31 yards for a touchdown, and the Bucs also sacked Newton three times.
“They asked me if I could go, and I said I could,” Newton said, adding that injury did affect his throwing. “As a leader of the team, it’s important to show I’m willing to leave it all out on the field. I take pride in putting a good product out there. Today wasn’t good enough, but at the end of the day I could say I gave it my all.”
The Panthers forced a pair of turnovers by Winston in the first half, but couldn’t convert them into points. Graham Gano missed three field goals, including a 36-yarder that would have given Carolina a 13-10 lead with just over six minutes remaining.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he didn’t give any consideration to not attempting a 2-point conversion.
“We were going for it. We didn’t come here to tie and see what happens. We came here to win the football game, and with 17 seconds left thought we had a great opportunity,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately, Greg (Olsen) slipped coming out the break. As you saw, the ball was on the money.”
The Bucs snapped a two-game losing streak to finish with their first winning record since 2010, when Tampa Bay went 10-6 but failed to earn a playoff berth.
Panthers: LB Luke Kuechly missed his sixth consecutive game, even though he had been cleared from the NFL concussion protocol.
Buccaneers: RT Demar Dotson returned to the lineup after missing three games with a concussion. C Joe Hawley (thumb) and G Kevin Pamphile (foot) left in the second quarter and returned. DE Noah Spencer (shoulder) and long snapper Andrew DePaola were hurt in the third quarter and did not return.
Panthers: The Panthers’ season is over after they went 17-1 a year ago before losing in the Super Bowl. Six of their 10 losses were by three or fewer points .
Buccaneers: Offseason decisions on how to improve a team that doesn’t have a postseason win since its Super Bowl run in 2002.