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Jameis Winston, Bucs ‘D’ shine as Panthers lose fourth straight

December 3, 2018

Don’t tell Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers’ defense that their season is over.

Winston again was terrific, playing mistake-free, high-octane ball in a second consecutive Tampa Bay victory, and the Bucs ‘D’ — which entered Sunday with only three combined interceptions — picked off Cam Newton four times in a 24-17 upset of Carolina.

Days after Newton beamed about “playing the best football of his career,” despite Carolina being mired in a three-game losing streak, he tossed four picks in a game for the first time since his rookie season in a crushing fourth consecutive loss, dropping the Panthers to 6-6.

Newton was intercepted three times by Bucs DB Andrew Adams, including on back-to-back fourth-quarter drives with his team trailing by one score. He finished 28-of-41 for 300 yards and two TDs in addition to the turnovers.

If Newton morphed into the Winston we’re used to seeing, the Bucs’ maligned starter looked more like Drew Brees. Winston rung up a rating of 114.4, completing 20-of-30 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns and adding 49 yards with his feet. Both of Winston’s touchdowns came on third down after he avoided the rush, first finding Adam Humphries on a 3-yarder early on and then hitting Chris Godwin while on the move shortly before halftime.

Winston extended his turnover-less streak of pass attempts to 68, over which he’s fired four touchdowns and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, and his last pick occurred in desperation mode after replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half in Week 11. If we forget that for a moment, he’s he’s thrown six touchdowns and completed 72.6 percent of his passes since replacing Fitzpatrick for the second time this season.

The Bucs face a very complex decision this offseason — several, really — when they must decide in early March whether to pick up Winston’s fifth-year team option at $20.9 million. If he were to return, it likely would be under a third different head coach entering Year 5. And a strong finish to a disappointing season is hardly new — Winston was excellent from Weeks 13-16 of a lost 2017 for the Bucs, likely aiding their decision to bring back Dirk Koetter.

Could Koetter return, too, after his firing of coordinator Mike Smith preceded recent improvements on defense? The Bucs had four sacks in addition to their four interceptions Sunday, one week after after sacking 49ers QB Nick Mullens four times and picking him twice. It’s likely too little, too late for Koetter, though it’s a positive sign that his team at least continues to battle.

The Panthers’ decisions this offseason should revolve around improving Newton’s protection and Ron Rivera’s secondary. Newton is having his best statistical season since his MVP campaign, and he’s clearly not completely healthy. He was replaced by QB2 Taylor Heinicke for the final Hail Mary attempt Sunday — which isn’t the first time that’s happened this season — an indication the quarterback’s throwing shoulder isn’t quite right.

With Carolina’s loss, the Seattle Seahawks — who are hosting the 2-10 49ers on Sunday — could grab the NFC’s final wild-card spot entering Week 14. Washington (6-5) currently is clinging to it but visits the Philadelphia Eagles Monday night in Colt McCoy’s second start in place of Alex Smith.

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