Bucs take ‘unacceptable’ loss to Saints, so NFC South title still unclaimed

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TAMPA, Fla. — In the end, Times Square won’t be the only place a ball was dropped on Sunday.

The Bucs, staked to a four-game winning streak, had a chance to clinch a third straight NFC South title on their home field by beating the Saints.

But Tampa Bay came out flat, turned the ball over four times and trailed 20-0 in the fourth quarter of what ended up a 23-13 loss to New Orleans. The Bucs can still clinch a division title by simply beating two-win Carolina next week, but the sting of Sunday’s disappointment put a significant damper on their recent surge.

“Very disappointing,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. “It was like we didn’t know what was at stake. We came out very flat on both sides of the ball. It’s something we’ve got to take to the chin. They came out and beat us. We’ve definitely got to get better, learn from it and get better next week.”

A loss next week would eliminate the Bucs, but all they need to do to salvage a divisional title and a home playoff game is beat the worst team in the NFL. Carolina clinched that in falling to 2-14 on Sunday with a 29-0 loss to the Jaguars, who lost to the Bucs a week earlier. Tampa remains in good shape, but don’t tell that to Bucs coach Todd Bowles.

“It doesn’t matter who we played today: a good team, a bad team, a college team, a high school team, we wouldn’t have won the game,” Bowles said.

The Saints, meanwhile, stepped up to keep their postseason hopes alive. They need the Bucs to lose next week, and if they do, the winner of the Falcons-Saints game in New Orleans will be the NFC South champ.

New Orleans, which had lost 26-9 to the Bucs in Week 4, played one of their its games of the season. Quarterback Derek Carr went 24-for-32 for 197 yards and two touchdowns, tight end Juwan Johnson had eight catches for 90 yards and a score, and the Saints defense held the Bucs to 45 yards and zero points in the first half.

“I’m proud of the way our guys continue to compete, proud of the way our guys continue to fight, and I’m proud of the way they played today,” coach Dennis Allen said. “Now we’ve got to digest this and get ready for Atlanta.”

Demario Davis and Derek Carr on Saints’ win: “Today we said enough”

Demario Davis and Derek Carr on Saints' win: "Today we said enough"

The division standings are close enough that even the Falcons, who lost 37-17 to the Bears on Sunday, can win the division if the Bucs lose and they beat the Saints. The Bucs are still the only team controlling their playoff destiny, but that didn’t help them much against the Saints.

Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield threw two interceptions, struggling to move the chains with consistency until a furious fourth quarter when Tampa Bay had 220 yards of total offense. Mayfield threw touchdowns to receivers Chris Godwin and Trey Palmer, but a two-point conversion failed with 1:37 left, missing a chance to make it a one-score game. Saints tight end Foster Moreau recovered an onside kick to seal the win, allowing them to end the game in victory formation, knowing they’d spoiled a potential celebration for their division rivals.

“It’s one thing to keep being positive,” Carr said after the game. “When it comes to fruition, I think the belief gets higher.”

Tampa Bay has had an up-and-down season — a 3-1 start, then losing six of seven, then four straight wins leading into Sunday’s game. Instead of carrying the momentum of a long winning streak into the playoffs, the Bucs are left with a boom-or-bust game on the road at Carolina next week, but that’s what they have ahead of them now. Win in Charlotte, and then and only then will it be a happy new year for the Bucs and their fans.

“It might be a good thing though, might be a good wake-up call,” Bucs tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “We might have been feeling ourselves a little bit. Bring everybody down a peg, back to what got us here. … This was for a third straight division title. We came out looking like that, it’s unacceptable. We’ve got to do something different. Next week’s for all the marbles.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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