QB Jameis Winston’s return can’t help fading Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston leads a huddle during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Jameis Winston returned, and it wasn’t enough for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Their playoff hopes are just about done after a 26-20 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

A season that started with rising expectations seems to be ending in a painfully familiar way for the franchise – in last place in the NFC South with dim prospects for the postseason.

Still, Winston refused to focus on anything but getting better for next week’s game against Detroit. The quarterback missed Tampa Bay’s three previous contests with a shoulder injury.

”I can’t really tell you about the future right now,” he said. ”No one in this room can predict the future right now, so we’ve just got to keep building and getting better every single day.”

Statistically, the offense had a decent day for Tampa Bay (4-8). Peyton Barber ran for 102 yards on 23 carries with starter Doug Martin sidelined by a concussion.

Winston was 21 of 32 for 270 yards and two touchdown passes to tight end Cameron Brate.

”I thought Jameis played good. He did a good job except the one play,” coach Dirk Koetter said.

He didn’t specify the play, though Packers defensive lineman Dean Lowry might have an idea.

Winston fumbled on a sack by Kenny Clark in the second quarter. The 6-foot-6, 296-pound Lowry snatched the loose ball in the air and rumbled 62 yards for a touchdown and Lambeau leap with a 17-7 lead.

”I don’t even know how the ball came out,” Winston said. ”When I reared it back (my arm) hit something.”

It was one of seven sacks on the day for the Packers, with Clay Matthews leading the pass rush with 2 1/2.

”That’s probably our worst protection game we’ve had all year,” Koetter said.

Winston also fumbled in the fourth quarter following Evan Smith’s early snap. He was whistled for an illegal forward pass on the next play, but the mistakes were erased by his second touchdown pass to Brate on third-and-11 for a 20-17 lead with 6:02 left in regulation.

Winston refused to blame his offensive line for poor protection, though there were a couple communication issues with Smith. He was a last-minute replacement at center after starter Joe Hawley was scratched due to illness.

Two other starters on the offensive line were placed on injured reserve earlier in the week.

”So I don’t think it’s right to be able to say that they did subpar when they overcame so much in this day,” Winston said.

His day started out so well, too, connecting with Brate for a 28-yard touchdown pass on the game’s opening drive. Brate made a nice one-handed grab, extending his right arm in front of him toward the goal line after beating his defender.

”Today with Jameis back, he really trusts me with those crucial situations and he gave me a couple opportunities,” Brate said.

But not enough to get a win, not with one too many turnovers.

So chalk up the trip to Lambeau Field as another lesson for the promising young quarterback in just his third NFL season.

”We’ve got to remember he’s 23 years old,” Koetter said, ”and experience is still the best teacher.”

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