TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Too many turnovers, penalties and dropped passes.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist they aren’t the "same old Bucs" anymore, yet they’re still showing they have a penchant for undermining their chances for success with costly mistakes.
Sunday’s 26-21 loss to Chicago, in which Jameis Winston threw a goal-line interception, Doug Martin fumbled twice and a couple of untimely penalties helped the Bears take control, was the club’s fourth in five games. It also ensured the Bucs (6-9) will not finish with a winning record for the fifth straight season.
A three-game losing streak has them on the brink of becoming the first NFC team since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to finish last in its division five consecutive years.
That will happen if the Bucs lose this week’s finale at Carolina (14-1), while New Orleans (6-9) closes with a win on the road against NFC South rival Atlanta.
"It’s disappointing to say the least. We know what’s happened the last three games. But we have one more opportunity," coach Lovie Smith said Monday, reiterating his belief that despite the way the team has played the past month, Tampa Bay is getting better and a strong performance against the Panthers can set a positive tone for next year.
"I think as we leave, you’re going to remember the last thing that happened. We’re playing one of the best teams in football. We get one more chance to make a lot of these things look a lot better than they do right now. … This is our playoff game, all the words you want to use," Smith said. "This is it for us. We’re looking at it that way."
The Bucs won two games in 2015, earning the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Winston, a rookie, has been a big part of tripling the victory total this season, however the Bucs are one of the most penalized teams in the league and lately have reverted to an old habit of doing whatever it takes to lose.
The offense turned the ball over three times against the Bears, who rushed for 174 yards on a reeling defense that did not have a takeaway for the fourth time in five games.
A face mask penalty wiped out an interception in Bears territory that would have given Winston an opportunity to build on an early 7-0 lead. Two dropped passes on deep throws hindered the young quarterback’s effort to rally from a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter.
"When you’re a young team, it doesn’t always happen right away. You keep building. We’re not a finished product yet," Smith said.
"There are a lot of young team mistakes we’ve made. We haven’t handled situations as well as some more veteran teams would. But that’s a part of it, too," the coach added. "We’ve made a lot of strides, but there are some areas where we need to improve. It’s as simple as that."
The Bucs were eliminated from postseason contention two games ago, but Smith said it won’t be difficult to motivate his players to try end the season "the right way" Sunday.
While Carolina’s bid for a perfect regular season ended with a loss to Atlanta last week, it’s still a meaningful game for the Panthers, who has not yet clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
"When you’re competing, it’s about pride. I think it would have been a little bit of a downer if they weren’t playing to win and playing with their best players out there," the Bucs coach said. "We want to see what we can do against one of the best in the league. Right now, I think the only way to get a bad taste out of your mouth is to play well."