Bucs play hard for Koetter but still stumble against Panthers

If you're looking for a way to feel after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers blew it against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in a 22-19 loss, you have two options: bang your head against a wall over Chris Baker's personal foul that ultimately cost them the game, or feel good that a 4-11 team is still fighting to the finish for coach Dirk Koetter, and that a healthy Jameis Winston makes a world of difference at quarterback.

The first reaction is perfectly understandable. On fourth-and-3 with the Panthers trying to score the winning touchdown, Baker was called for a neutral-zone infraction. That set up a fourth-and-1, which the Panthers converted, followed by a 2-yard touchdown by Cam Newton.

It was a reminder of the type of season it's been for the Bucs -- a hurricane that had them scrambling to evacuate in Week 1 instead of playing the Miami Dolphins, an injury to their starting quarterback, zero wins in their division with one game remaining and four straight weeks of losing either by a field goal or in overtime.

On the other hand, they had absolutely nothing to play for, other than Koetter's job and their own futures with the team and elsewhere, and they played well, despite being without eight starters. (Center Ali Marpet, right tackle Demar Dotson, guard J.R. Sweezy, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tight end O.J. Howard, defensive end Robert Ayers, cornerback Ryan Smith and safety Justin Evans were out with injuries.)

“I could spend two hours up here talking about the things that happened to us this year, but I’m not. That’s making excuses,” Winston said. “A bunch of unfortunate things just happened to us. ... Everyone has bad things happen to them -- things we can’t control and some things we can control.”

The Bucs managed to keep it respectable, and their defense had one of its best games of the year, holding the Panthers to just 4-of-13 on third-down conversions (31 percent), their second-best mark all season (behind only their Week 10 win over the New York Jets). They also outgained the Panthers in total net yards, 392-255.

That shows that maybe things aren't so broken in Tampa after all, and maybe Koetter deserves some consideration for sticking around another year, although it's hard to justify bringing back any coach who is winless in the division with one game left in the season. It also reinforces the notion that this is a talented team that can't get out of its own way and self-destructs at the worst possible times.

As far as what the Bucs did well...

Winston completed 21 of 27 passes for 367 yards, with a touchdown and no interceptions. In the third quarter, a scrambling Winston found rookie wide receiver Jesus Wilson for an 18-yard touchdown, the 68th touchdown of Winston's career, tying him with Dan Marino for the most touchdown passes before a player's 24th birthday. Another big play for Winston was a 70-yard pass to rookie Chris Godwin, the Bucs' longest reception since 2013.

In other words, despite being sacked six times, Winston looked like the quarterback he's supposed to be, excelling with play-action, extending plays with his legs and hitting explosive plays downfield. The only real mistake he made was losing the football when he was sacked by Kawann Short and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in the final seconds.

“[His performance was] pretty damn good,” Koetter said of Winston. “That guy’s a warrior, man. That guy’s a warrior.”

Winston added: “I’m just getting healthier every week. That’s all. ... When you’re able to be healthy in the pocket, it’s a lot different.”

There were big moments on defense, too. Gerald McCoy mustered a sack on third-and-4 in the first quarter, forcing Carolina to punt, and did so despite playing with a partially torn biceps. Linebacker Kwon Alexander picked off a Newton pass for the team's 25th takeaway of the season.

But there were reminders the Bucs are still a 4-11 team, and they did things that well-coached teams simply don't do.

The Bucs were 1-for-6 in the red zone, something that's been an issue all season and really in the three seasons Koetter has been in Tampa. Since 2015, the Bucs have converted 51 percent of red-zone plays, 26th in the league. In 2017 alone, they're at 48 percent, 25th in the league.

“I’ve got to give them better calls in the red zone -- I stunk in the red zone today -- but we just couldn’t get it done,” Koetter said. “Our guys battled hard all day. We didn’t make enough plays ultimately.”

Penalties also played a role throughout the game. The Bucs had a season-high 12 for 72 yards, and whether it was the illegal block above the waist against the Green Bay Packers earlier this month or Baker's, they can wipe out what otherwise would have been a solid day and can lose a game.

“There [were] a lot of critical plays -- we jumped offsides too many times, we turned it over too many times, we didn’t score touchdowns in the red zone too many times,” Koetter said. “Some plays get magnified more than others -- you can pick a bunch of them.”

And then there were just good old-fashioned mistakes that caused a huge loss in momentum.

Just before halftime, Winston was sacked on third down and the Bucs were forced to settle for a field goal, the third of four trips into the red zone in the first half that failed to yield a touchdown. The Panthers' Damiere Byrd responded with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Then in the fourth quarter, with a chance to extend the Bucs' lead to seven points, Patrick Murray missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. It was his second miss from 50 yards in six days. He'd made four others.

After Murray's miss, and with three minutes to play, the Bucs allowed a 23-yard catch by Brenton Bersin, and a 13-yard catch by Kaelin Clay, inching the Panthers closer to scoring range as they trailed by four, ultimately setting up Newton's game-winning touchdown.

After that, Winston was sacked by Short, fumbled and had a subsequent outburst. He was nearly inconsolable on the sideline, speaking volumes about his level of frustration with the way this season has turned out.