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Bucs, Bears look to end non-playoff year on positive note

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) There are two games remaining in Jameis Winston's rookie season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to use them to make a statement about what kind of team they can be next year.

''There's not going to be any shutting it down or anything like that,''' coach Lovie Smith said in the wake of the Bucs (6-8) officially being eliminated from playoff contention.

Smith's old team, the Chicago Bears, visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Tampa Bay closes with a season-ending trip to unbeaten Carolina.

The coach's message to a young team that's already tripled Tampa Bay's victory total from a year ago is there's still plenty to accomplish by finishing strong.

''What we do now helps us build momentum going into next season,'' Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. ''Carolina did the same thing. They finished last season strong and look at where they are now. We could take a lesson from them - always have something to play for.''

Chicago (5-9) is in a similar position after being eliminated from the race last week, too.

The Bears have lost three straight after a stretch in which they won five of eight to climb to the edge of contention for a NFC wild-card berth in their first season under coach John Fox.

''I think we've made strides,'' Fox said. ''Obviously we're disappointed in our record at 5-9. We've been competitive in many, many games, ones we've fell a little bit short on. We're just looking to finish strong, much like I'm sure Lovie is talking to Tampa Bay about.''

Winston has given the Bucs everything they could hope for from a young quarterback handed the starting job from the first day of training camp.

The No. 1 overall pick in the draft has improved steadily since turning the ball over five times during a Week 4 loss to Carolina. He has joined Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck as the only QBs in NFL history with 3,000-plus yards passing, 20 touchdown passes and least five TDs rushing as rookies.

''His growth has been amazing on a week-to-week basis,'' linebacker Lavonte David said. ''The way he takes control of the offense, the way he understands defenses that he's going against. He's been nothing short of what we expected.''

One of the keys to the Bears rebounding from an 0-3 start to give themselves a shot at salvaging their season was getting better play from Jay Cutler, who's topped 3,000 yards passing for the seventh time in his career while throwing for 18 TDs and cutting down on interceptions (eight).

The skid that ended slim hopes includes close losses to San Francisco and Washington, plus last week's 21-point setback at Minnesota.

''There's ups and downs - it happens every year,'' Cutler said, characterizing what's gone wrong.

''Unfortunately, we've been on the losing side a little bit too often. We've played tough games. We've had three overtime games, we lost some close battles kind of in the middle of the season,'' the quarterback added. ''This last game, we kind of let it nag and let that one get away from us. But overall, we're playing tough football. We've got to find a way to finish games better.''

Things to know about the Bucs and Bears:

WITHIN REACH: The Bucs will miss the playoffs for the eighth straight season, but still can accomplish a franchise first. Doug Martin is second in the league with 1,305 yards, 9 behind Adrian Peterson with two games remaining. The fourth-year pro - and his offensive line - want that title of No. 1 rusher. ''It would be awesome ... a great accomplishment,'' the fourth-year pro said.

FAMILIAR FOES: The Bears lead the all-time series between the former division rivals 37-18. They've won two straight, four of the past five. The teams faced each other as members of the old NFC Central from 1977-2001.

EDGE CUTLER?: Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has won all three of his previous starts against Tampa Bay, completing 57 of 93 passes for 583 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.

ON PACE: The Bucs are averaging 374.2 yards per game in total offense, seventh in the NFL and on pace for a franchise record. They're averaging 141.5 on the ground, fourth in the league and on pace for the second-best mark in club history.

NOTHING SPECIAL: Lovie Smith coached the Bears from 2004-2012, compiling an 81-63 record that makes him the third-winningest coach in franchise history behind Hall of Famers George Halas and Mike Ditka. He led the Bears to three division titles, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance. It's not the first time he's faced his old team. Chicago beat Tampa Bay 21-13 last season, Smith's first with the Bucs.

The coach played down the significance of going against his former team. ''There will be some meaning with that, but there are not a whole lot of players on the team that I coached,'' Smith said.


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