Buccaneers playoff hopes take hit with 31-24 loss to Saints

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

By BRETT MARTEL

AP Sports Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston let a veteran safety get the best of him - twice - and wasn't hiding his disappointment about a performance that might have cost the Buccaneers a chance at their first playoff berth since 2007.

"I want to make the playoffs. My goal is to win the Super Bowl and try to get away from that standard of just being OK," said Winston, who was intercepted twice by Jairus Byrd . "We want to be great, and I didn't play great tonight."

Mark Ingram rushed for two-touchdowns and a game-sealing first down in the final minutes, and the Saints pushed Tampa Bay closer to elimination from postseason contention with a 31-24 victory Saturday.

The Buccaneers (8-7) needed a win to keep pace with Green Bay (9-6) for the final NFC wild-card spot but couldn't keep up with the Saints' explosive offense.

Tampa Bay's loss locked up the NFC South for Atlanta (10-5) and ensured a wild card for the New York Giants. Now the Buccaneers must win their season finale and hope for losses by Washington and Green Bay next week. If that happens, a complicated tiebreaker based on strength of victories will decide the final playoff spot between the Bucs and Packers.

"However that works out, it works out," Bucs coach Drik Koetter said. "We knew all week our job was to win today, and we didn't. Whatever happens after that is for the math professors to figure out."

Drew Brees was 23 of 34 for 299 yards and a touchdown for New Orleans (7-8), which gained 417 total yards and did not have a turnover against a team with 26 takeaways - including three interceptions of Brees in the clubs' previous meeting two weeks earlier.

"The big emphasis for us the last two weeks has been back to our standard, back to our level of execution," said Brees, who passed for 389 yards in a victory at Arizona in Week 15. "We've shown when we can get things rolling with tempo and rhythm, we can sustain drives and score points."

Brandin Cooks caught five passes for 98 yards, including a 42-yard reception. New Orleans rookie Michael Thomas had six receptions for 98 yards, including a 46-yarder that set up Travaris Cadet's 11-yard touchdown catch.

PIVOTAL PICKS

Byrd's first interception , which he caught along the sideline at the Tampa Bay 38 and returned to the 14, set up Ingram's second TD.

"That was just a crazy play by my part. No one was open. I tried to give my guy a chance," Winston said. "I was just very indecisive. It was uncharacteristic. That shouldn't have happened."

Byrd's made his second interception on the New Orleans 17 with the Bucs trailing by 10 and about eight minutes left.

"There's was a look that they had given and I kind of knew what route was going to come off that look, so I just went" to the spot of the throw, Byrd said.

Winston was 23 of 35 for 277 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 27 TDs this season, tying a franchise single-season record. His touchdown passes went to tight end Cameron Brate and Mike Evans.

But Winston summed up his game by saying, "Their quarterback had a better day than I had. I turned it over twice and he turned it over zero."

GROUND GAINS

Ingram capped his 18-carry, 90-yard performance by putting the game away with three straight runs - the last for a first down - after Cooks had recovered an onside kick with just less than two minutes left. That allowed New Orleans to run out the clock.

PAYTON'S PLACE

Sean Payton passed Jim Mora for most victories as Saints coach. The victory was Payton's 94th with New Orleans - the only place he's been a head coach.

"It's exciting," Payton said. "A lot of work, a lot of coaches and players over the years that have been part of that."

MISSING MARTIN

Bucs running back Doug Martin was surprisingly scratched before the game. Koetter said it was not injury-related, explaining that he only wanted to dress three running backs and needed two others for special teams. Martin, who missed six games earlier this season with a hamstring injury, had started Tampa Bay's previous six games before sitting out in New Orleans. Starter Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 63 yards on 15 carries, including a 3-yard touchdown.

INJURIES

Brate, who caught his eighth touchdown pass this season in the first half, left in the third quarter after injuring his back.

UP NEXT

Buccaneers: Host Carolina looking to sweep the series from the Panthers.

Saints: Play season finale in Atlanta.

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Updated December 24, 2016

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