Bucs sputter after taking double-digit lead against Saints

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              Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) gets sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay’s bid to escape a deep hole and climb back into the race for a NFC playoff berth is all but over.

The Buccaneers (5-8) weren’t eliminated by Sunday’s 28-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints, however the team is assured of finishing no better than .500 after sputtering offensively and wearing down defensively after holding a 14-3 halftime lead.

Oh, and special teams contributed to the demise, too.

Cairo Santos missed two field goals, one after Jason Pierre-Paul recovered Drew Brees‘ fumble deep in Saints territory and a blocked punt led to a touchdown that sparked New Orleans’ rally.

“That was a momentum change. We had other chances, but that was definitely a big play,” coach Dirk Koetter said.

“Our defense was on the field way too much in the second half. I think we had 16, almost 17 minutes of time of possession in the first half, and like 12 in the second half,” Koetter added. “That’s not going to work against the Saints.”

It didn’t help, either, that Tampa Bay was penalized 10 times for 84 yards, including an unnecessary roughness penalty against center Ryan Jensen late in the second quarter that led to a heated verbal exchange with quarterback Jameis Winston.

Both players said the dustup wasn’t a big deal.

“Families fight. Me and Jameis are highly competitive guys and we just had simple words,” Jensen said. “We talked about it. We got cooled down and talked about it and everything is good.”

Winston was 18 of 38 passing for 213 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on Tampa Bay’s final play. He was sacked four times and led the Bucs in rushing for the second straight week with 47 yards on five attempts.

“Brothers have disagreements,” the quarterback said. “It wasn’t that much.”

Koetter said he hadn’t talked about the situation with either player.

The coach said Winston wasn’t as sharp as the previous two weeks in victories over San Francisco and Carolina.

Koetter noted, however, that Winston did a good job of protecting the football. The problem was New Orleans defense was on its game after giving up a long TD drive to begin the game.

“Jameis was under duress all day. Jameis got hit too many times. You can’t have your quarterback hit that many times whether it’s scrambling, running, four sacks,” Koetter said. “I mean, you can’t get hit that much.”

In addition to outscoring the Bucs 25-0 in the second half, the Saints limited the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense to 79 yards after halftime.

Most of that yardage came on Tampa Bay’s last drive, which ended with an interception with 1 second left.

“We have to finish better, execute better,” Winston said.

“It wasn’t good enough in the second half. We’ve just got to take ownership of that,” tackle Demar Dotson said.

“Going into the second half I thought that we had an opportunity to put a fork into them,” Dotson added, “but they got a boost of confidence from a missed field goal, a punt blocked.”