To make the postseason, the Buccaneers will likely need a string of wins -- and will certainly need some help -- starting with Sunday's road game against the struggling New Orleans Saints.
After its fourth consecutive win Nov. 18, it appeared that Tampa Bay was headed for its first postseason berth since 2007. A three-game losing streak since, however, has put the Buccaneers (6-7) in serious danger of missing the playoffs once again.
Tampa Bay, which has dropped its last three by a combined 11 points, blew an 11-point lead in the final seven minutes Sunday and allowed Philadelphia to snap an eight-game skid with a 1-yard pass as time expired.
The 23-21 defeat marked the fourth time this season that the Buccaneers have failed to capitalize on a fourth-quarter lead. They couldn't maintain a late six-point advantage in the first loss of their slide, falling 24-23 to Atlanta on Nov. 25.
"Every loss is tough, but we can't dwell on it. A lot of guys are disappointed, but they still understand we've got a lot of football to play the rest of the year," defensive end Da'Quan Bowers said. "You can't dwell on that one game. We've got to correct the fixable things and transfer our focus to New Orleans."
Tampa Bay is two games behind wild-card leaders Seattle and Chicago and has four other teams in front of it as well. The Bucs have made matters worse by dropping six of nine conference games.
"Right now, we're playing for a lot," coach Greg Schiano said.
To avoid their longest losing streak of the season, Tampa Bay will try to take advantage of a team that's all but out of the playoff picture. While New Orleans (5-8) hasn't been eliminated, it would need an unlikely set of circumstances to stay alive past this week -- a win and losses by Chicago, Seattle and Washington.
A repeat of last week's performance won't help.
With a 52-27 loss to the New York Giants, the Saints matched their third-highest total for points allowed in a game. New Orleans gave up a team-worst 287 yards on six kickoff returns, including a 97-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
"We have a prideful group in this locker room," running back Mark Ingram said. "Our focus going forward is just getting better every single day and improving individually. We've had three straight losses. It would be nice to close the season with three straight wins."
The Saints defeated Tampa Bay 35-28 on Oct. 21, erasing a 21-7 second-quarter deficit as Drew Brees threw four touchdowns.
The Bucs' Josh Freeman passed for a career-best 420 yards and three TDs in that game, but he hasn't topped 265 yards in the seven contests since.
Rookie Doug Martin ran for 85 yards, including a 36-yard TD, on 16 carries versus the Saints. He has four games of at least 128 yards rushing in the last seven.
Brees has struggled in the last two contests, throwing one touchdown and seven interceptions while posting a 53.8 passer rating.
"Each of these games is so important, still so important, because we have a lot of prideful guys," Brees said. "We're not about to shut it down and feel like the season is lost. There's still a lot that can be done."
After watching film of both teams, Scouts Inc. breaks down key elements of the Week 15 Buccaneers-Saints matchup.
• Keep Brees on the sidelines: Even though Drew Brees has struggled over the past few weeks, he is still one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL. The Buccaneers need to sustain time-consuming drives that produce points and keep Brees and his explosive offense on the sidelines. A strong ground game featuring rookie Doug Martin mixed with an effective, controlled passing attack should allow the Buccaneers to move the ball on a struggling New Orleans defense.