Tampa Bay’s five-game winning streak came to a screeching halt in Dallas after a 26-20 loss to the Cowboys, who improved to 12-2 on the season. The Bucs, who are now 8-6, no longer control their playoff destiny and need help to make the postseason. The Bucs also need better play from quarterback Jameis Winston, who had four turnovers and a critical penalty in the loss on Sunday Night Football. Can Winston and Tampa Bay’s defense rebound on Christmas Eve and win in New Orleans to stay in the playoff picture at 9-6?

It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game.

The Buccaneers used the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on a big-time quarterback with big-game experience when they selected Jameis Winston, who was a Heisman Trophy winner and the winner of a national championship at Florida State as a redshirt freshman. He was drafted for big games like Tampa Bay’s game at Dallas on Sunday Night Football.

But instead of looking like the rookie sensation that threw for over 4,000 yards and went to the Pro Bowl during his first NFL season, Winston looked … well, like a typical rookie quarterback. The problem is that Winston is not a rookie and is almost through his second NFL season.

The fact that Winston once again looked too amped up to start a big football game and contributed four turnovers was the story of the game. It was Dallas’ Dak Prescott, the actual rookie quarterback in Sunday night’s game, that played like the poised veteran the Bucs hoping Winston becomes.

Prescott was comfortable and in rhythm all night, completing 32-of-36 (88.9 percent) of his passes for 279 yards, finishing with the second highest completion percentage in NFL history with a minimum of 30 passes.

“He’s amazing,” Winston said. “He’s playing really good, and the team is playing really good around him. He’s got a great young running back in Zeke [Elliott], who’s playing very good. He’s taking care of the football. He definitely won the turnover battle against me tonight, so that’s how you win games.”

At halftime, Winston completed just 6-of-12 passes for 81 yards and threw an interception right before halftime. But it was his fumble at Tampa Bay’s own 14-yard line that led to Dallas’ first touchdown in the second quarter and build a 10-3 lead. Meanwhile, Prescott was an incredibly efficient 21-of-25 passing for 191 yards with 17 rushing yards and a touchdown in the first half.

Almost as deadly as Winston’s fumble was his inexcusable head butt on linebacker Justin Durant after he had a rough tackle on running back Doug Martin. Winston took issue with Durant throwing Martin down to the ground after a tackle and that 15-yard penalty in the red zone ultimately stymied the Bucs’ drive and forced the Bucs to settle for a field goal.

“We had a penalty,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “Jameis let his emotions get the best of him on that. That can’t happen. He had the one interception at the end of the half. He did a great job in the third quarter, though, getting us back in and then we couldn’t get anything going in the fourth.”

Winston threw his second interception in the fourth quarter as his arm got hit by defensive end David Irving, who right tackle Gosder Cherilus had trouble handling all night. His third and final pick came on Tampa Bay’s final drive after being pressured by Irving once again.

“We saw the streaky side a little bit of Jameis,” Koetter said. “He got off to a slow start. Even though we got a good drive and got that early lead, against a team like this, you can’t kick field goals and expect to win. You look at the stats at the end and we’re 1-for-3 in the red zone. Those other eight points would have helped us. The second one was that penalty that you mentioned earlier. That’s been hurting us the last few weeks and it caught up to us tonight. The flip side is what Jameis was able to do when we got some rhythm going there in the third quarter. That’s a plus. That shows you what we’re capable of doing when we’re firing. We got a little hot there in that third quarter and we came right back.”

There’s no doubt that Winston is a talented player. He’s thrown 47 touchdown passes in his first two years in the NFL, which is tied for fifth all-time with Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton (2011-12). With six more TD passes over the final two games, Winston would tie Peyton Manning (1998-99) and Russell Wilson (2012-13) for third best all-time mark behind Oakland’s Derek Carr (53 from 2014-15) and Miami’s Dan Marino (68 from 1983-84).

But the maddening thing about Winston’s game is that he is a streaky quarterback. He’s either hot or he’s not, and you don’t know when he’s going to get hot, nor do you know when he’s going to suddenly cool off, either. Winston had five chances in the fourth quarter to lead the Bucs to a 27-26 victory, but was 3-of-12 for 19 yards with two interceptions over Tampa Bay’s final five drives. That’s ice cold.

At 10:49 p.m. ET it became apparent that Tampa Bay veteran right tackle Gosder Cherilus couldn’t handle Dallas left defensive end David Irving one-on-one. That’s when I texted my good friend, Rick Zois, who is a huge Cowboys fan, and relayed that message. He texted me back and said, “That’s the first time anyone has ever said that. Ever. Lol.”

Bucs QB Jameis Winston gets sacked - Photo by: Getty Images

Bucs QB Jameis Winston gets sacked – Photo by: Getty Images

Cherilus was starting his second straight game in place of the injured Demar Dotson, who is still in the concussion protocol from the New Orleans game, and got absolutely owned by a relatively anonymous second-year defensive end. Irving, who came into Sunday night’s game with exactly 1.5 sacks in his first 24 NFL games, suddenly looked like the second coming of Dallas legend Ed “Too Tall” Jones, while Cherilus suddenly looked like former average-at-best Tampa Bay right tackles Jason Odom or Kenyatta Walker.

The 6-foot-7, 273-pound Irving simply took over the game in the fourth quarter, and finished with two sacks, five quarterback hits, several more pressures and a batted pass. Cherlius, who whiffed blocking anyone in space on a critical screen pass to Charles Sims in the fourth quarter that looked like it had the chance to be a big play, was pulled in favor of undrafted free agent tackle Leonard Wester. He fared no better, and head coach Dirk Koetter and the offensive coaching staff did too little to help Cherlius and Wester against Irving in the fourth quarter.

The Bucs should have kept a tight end or a back in to chip Irving more than they did, and Winston might not have had such a horrific fourth quarter – he finished the game completing just 3-of-12 for 19 yards with two interceptions. You have to wonder if a healthy Dotson allows Winston more time to scan downfield and hit more throws to lead the Bucs to a comeback victory. Perhaps he does.

But the 31-year old Dotson hasn’t been a pillar of granite at the right tackle position this year, either. The right tackle position may have cost Tampa Bay a shot at winning the NFC South and making the playoffs in Dallas. It’s a position that suddenly becomes a glaring need for general manager Jason Licht to address in the 2017 NFL Draft as Winston needs better pass protection next year.

No, not really – but really.

One of the few bright spots for Tampa Bay’s anemic first half offense was the field goal kicking of rookie Roberto Aguayo, who was perfect on the night. The Bucs had the worst field goal percentage in the league at 72 percent, but it was Aguayo that connected on both of his kicks in the first half to give Tampa Bay its first six points.

Dan Bailey came into Sunday connecting on 21-of-24 (87.5 percent) kicks as Dallas entered the Bucs game with the 10th-best field goal accuracy. Yet he missed two out of his first three field goals of the game.

Bailey’s 56-yarder fell short at the end of the first Cowboys drive and then he missed a 52-yard field goal right before halftime to keep Dallas’ lead at 17-6. Bailey did connect on a 27-yarder in the first half before hitting a 40-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 20-20. He then tacked on a 38-yard field goal to give Dallas a 23-20 lead and then another one from 33 yards to push the Cowboys’ lead to 26-20.

Aguayo had a rough start to his rookie season, missing five of first 11 field goals, but has made 14 of his last 16 (87.5 percent) field goals, including a 25-yarder to start things off in the first quarter and give the Bucs an early 3-0 lead. Aguayo’s 34-yarder was his final field goal of the game, but the arrow continues to point up for this promising rookie, who also made both of his extra point attempts against Dallas.

It’s been a long time since the Bucs tasted defeat – five weeks to be exact. Tampa Bay finally learned how to handle success this year and string wins together. The Bucs’ five-game winning streak was the longest since the Super Bowl season in 2002. Now can Tampa Bay learn how to handle defeat the right way and not let a loss beat you twice?

Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter and MLB Kwon Alexander - Photo by: Getty Images

Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter and MLB Kwon Alexander – Photo by: Getty Images

The Bucs still have a lot to play for, as the final NFC Wild Card spot may not be decided until Week 17. In order to give themselves a shot at the playoffs, Tampa Bay has to win out and go 2-0 down the stretch to finish 10-6.

“You hit next week hard, and your goal is to go 1-0 against the Saints, and then the next week you go 1-0, and the next week you go 1-0, and start stacking up those one win seasons,” said Winston.

With the loss in Dallas, the 8-6 Bucs are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Washington is 7-5-1 and if they win on Monday Night Football they will be the current placeholder for the sixth playoff spot in the NFC over Tampa Bay and Green Bay, which is also 8-6. Should the Redskins lose, the Packers would move into the sixth playoff spot as Green Bay has the current tiebreaker over Tampa Bay.

The Saints are 6-8 and out of the playoff hunt, but won on the road in Arizona, beating the Cardinals 48-41, and want to avenge a 16-11 loss at Tampa Bay from two weeks ago. The Bucs need to show some mettle, regroup and finish their 2016 road schedule with a win and a 6-2 record away from Raymond James Stadium.

I hate to say I told you so, but I forecasted the Buccaneers’ loss at Dallas on Sunday, and I predicted that right here in this very column last week. On Saturday, I offered my official score prediction of 23-20, and it turned out to be a 26-20 loss instead.

But I am predicting a rebound game for Winston and the Bucs next week in New Orleans as Tampa Bay improves to 9-6 on the season and posts its first winning record since 2010 when the Bucs went 10-6. Sweeping the Saints is no easy feat, and Winston will have to come in with a laser focus and outduel Drew Brees, who lit the Cardinals up for 389 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday, hooking up with Brandin Cooks seven times for 186 yards and two scores.

Bucs middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, who had a career-high 21 tackles and a forced fumble against Dallas, needs to continue to play well, and Tampa Bay will have to weather the loss of defensive end Will Gholston, the team’s chief run stopper, who is out for the year with a dislocated elbow. Brees is always dangerous, but he’s deadly when the Saints have balance to their offense, and running backs Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower combined for 115 yards rushing and two scores on Sunday.

It’ll be a close shootout, but Winston goes off and gets the win for Tampa Bay.
In addition to finding a better option at right tackle in 2017, Licht is also going to have to add some real, legitimate competition to the Bucs’ backfield as Martin has looked like a shell of his former self this year. Missing five games with a hamstring injury, Martin has rushed for just 421 yards and three touchdowns on 144 carries this year (2.9 avg.), and his lack of production has hurt Tampa Bay’s offense.

RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

The Bucs re-signed Martin to a five-year, $35.75 million deal with $15 million in guaranteed money after he ran for 1,402 yards and six scores last year, finishing as the league’s second-leading rusher behind Adrian Peterson. So far he hasn’t come close to earning that money and hasn’t even rushed for 100 yards in any game this season. Inconsistent run blocking hasn’t helped, either.

Martin’s best output this season was gaining 87 yards on 23 carries (3.8 avg.) in a 14-5 win against Seattle, and that was the last time he’s averaged at least three yards per carry. Martin’s longest run this year has been a 17-yarder in Week 1 against Atlanta. Since then it has been a 15-yarder at San Diego.

Dating back to 2015, it’s been 14 straight games since Martin has rushed for 100 yards or more. The Bucs have only had two 100-yard rushing performances by a running back this year, and those came from reserve running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who despite being inactive against Dallas is still Tampa Bay’s leading rusher this year with 422 yards on 97 carries (4.4 avg.).

Martin finished the Dallas game with a paltry 42 yards rushing on 16 carries (2.6 avg.) and I don’t see him topping the century mark against New Orleans or Carolina down the stretch, either.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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4 years ago

I hope that Koetter and Bajakian put together a reel of 100 great 2-minute drives for Winston to study in the offseason. Yes, Cherlius was lousy, but Jameis needs learn to be more patient. Every play in those last two drives looked like he was looking for the home run. Let’s face it, the Bucs and Jameis have grown leaps and bounds this year and I’m very excited for the future of this team. When they were down 17-3 on the road against an 11-2 team, most other Bucs teams would fold like a cheap suit. The fact that they… Read more »