Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) outruns the New Orleans Saints defense for a 14-yard touchdown during the second quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
Steve Nesius
December 14, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The teetering Tampa Bay Buccaneers remain optimistic about the prospects of ending an eight-year playoff drought.

A 24-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints dropped the Bucs (6-7) two games behind Seattle in the race for the final NFC wild-card spot, however coach Lovie Smith and players aren't conceding anything with three weeks remaining in the regular season.

Tampa Bay, which hasn't made the playoffs since 2007 or won a postseason game since the franchise's Super Bowl run 13 seasons ago, returns to action Thursday night at St. Louis (5-8).

The Bucs close out their schedule against Chicago (5-8) at home and unbeaten Carolina (13-0) on the road - a challenging task for a team that's only had one two-game winning streak since 2013.

Smith reiterated Monday that he welcomes a short turnaround after watching his team play poorly against the struggling Saints, who stopped a four-game skid while damaging Tampa Bay's playoff chances.

''That's exactly how you want to do it. ... When you're disappointed you want to make it right, get a chance to come back,'' Smith said.

''We've had some disappointments this year. What I've seen from our football team is we have bounced back. So to be able to play that game a little bit earlier, that's a good thing.''

The Bucs wasted an opportunity to climb over .500 for the first time in three years, sputtering on offense against the NFL's 32th-ranked defense and failing slow down New Orleans' Drew Brees-led offense.

Smith was at a loss to explain the team's performance, particularly with what was at stake. He stressed, though, that it's too soon to count the team out of the race.

''I think it's a part of our growth as a football team. The same goals we had are still there. Nothing has been decided, so we're still talking about the same things,'' the coach said.

''We have three games left to go, and the team that's ahead of us has eight wins. You don't get into the playoffs with eight wins. ... If we take care of business this Thursday, we can be back in the same situation we were before'' losing to the Saints, Smith added.

Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston agreed that as long as there's a mathematical chance of earning a berth, the Bucs have to believe they can do it.

''Absolutely,'' the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft said. ''That's how my mind works.''

Team captain Logan Mankins, an 11th-year pro who's in his second season with Tampa Bay after spending the first nine with the New England Patriots, rejected the notion that Sunday's loss was an example of a young, improving team showing it's not quite ready to prosper down the stretch when the stakes get higher.

''No, I don't think so,'' the six-time Pro Bowl guard said. ''It always comes down to blocking, tackling, throwing and catching and we just didn't do enough of it.''

Another veteran offensive lineman, center Joe Hawley, signed with Tampa Bay in Week 2 and has become a starter.

''I think this team has learned a lot, especially from where they came from last year,'' Hawley said, alluding to the team's 2-14 record last season, the club's first under Smith.

''Obviously I am new to the team, but seeing the growth from the beginning of the year until now, we're learning a lot. We're learning how to win the close ones and we learned from the ones that we lose close,'' Hawley added.

''I think we're learning that it takes every little thing to beat teams in the NFL. Nobody is easy. They're all getting paid a lot of money, they're all really good players. So you have to bring your best every week.''

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