Buccaneers on brink of elimination from playoff race
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The skidding Tampa Bay Buccaneers have resigned themselves to the likelihood they will not make the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
A 31-23 loss to the St. Louis Rams that was not nearly as close as the final score suggests moved the Bucs (6-8) to the brink of elimination from postseason contention, however coach Lovie Smith reiterated Friday there's still plenty his young team has to play for the final two weeks of the regular season.
''We've seen major strides that we've taken,'' Smith said. ''We're not there yet, and that's what we get from the game. I thought we had arrived and we are getting closer, but we haven't made it there yet. We'll keep pushing and have a couple more games to leave a better taste in our mouths than what we have right now.''
Thursday night's loss was the third in four games for Tampa Bay, which trailed 21-3 at halftime and 28-6 before scoring two late touchdowns to pull within eight points with less than two minutes remaining.
The Bucs, who could be eliminated from the playoff race as early as Sunday, will face Chicago at home and unbeaten Carolina on the road to close their second season under Smith.
''Our chances plummeted, but we're going to keep fighting,'' receiver Mike Evans said. ''We've tripled our win total of last year and we want to quadruple it when we get these last two wins. Anything can happen. ... We'll keep fighting, try to finish strong.''
The Bucs have not made the playoffs since 2007 and haven't won a postseason game since their Super Bowl following the 2002 season.
''From where we were if we go back two weeks to where we are now, is obviously not the way we envisioned it,'' defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. ''All we can do at this point is try to finish as strong as possible. We've still got two more opportunities, which is how I look at it. There are two more games on the schedule. There are two more opportunities to one, go have fun, and two, try to get big wins.''
In addition to trying to get back to .500 and remain in playoff contention, the Bucs entered their only prime-time television appearance of the season hoping to prove they were not the same team went 2-14 a year ago.
The team amassed 509 yards total offense, with Jameis Winston setting career highs for completions (29), attempts (50) and passing yards (363). The No. 1 overall draft pick threw for two TDs, boosting his season total to 20, a franchise record for a rookie.
Keenum had a near perfect passer rating of 158.0, going 14 of 17 for 234 yards and two TDs without an interception. The Rams topped 200 yards passing for only the third time this year.
Smith conceded that outside of stopping the run and forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal after allowing St. Louis to return a kickoff 102 yards to the Tampa Bay 3, there was not much to like about the way the defense played.
''If you're a young football team, you have to go through these. You have to get on center stage and see how you react. ... We didn't handle center stage as well as we will in the future. Everybody had a part in that,'' the coach said.
''We acted, in some parts, like a young football team that makes young football team mistakes. You have to go through it, get your hands burned, so to say,'' Smith added. ''But what I've seen from our young football team is we do learn from these situations. We haven't handled some situations well, but I've seen improvement from that.''
Winston agreed, calling Thursday night a ''lesson learned.''
''Gotta move forward. ... Our playoff hopes are probably done, but the season ain't over yet,'' the rookie said. ''We're still going out there to compete. We're still going out there to fight and try to go 8-8.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL