TAMPA — When it was finally over, when this Bucs season filled with more pain than promise elapsed and the clock struck 0:00, there were smiles and hugs and fist pumps to celebrate the 31-24 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Quarterback Jameis Winston, whose game-winning, 39-yard touchdown pass to rookie Chris Godwin for a touchdown with nine seconds left capped an improbable 95-yard drive, raised his index finger as he ran into the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium, Joe Namath style.
The Bucs beat the NFC South champion Saints, overcoming their usual assortment of interceptions, errant kicks and missed tackles.
This is how 2017 ends for the Bucs. But darned if it didn’t feel like the start of something.
"That play right there really signifies everything our season has been right there,’’ coach Dirk Koetter said. "With all the close games we’ve been in, we were due, I guess.’’
The Bucs looked like they would lose this game 24-23 on a missed extra point by Patrick Murray.
Winston was terrible, throwing three interceptions. Then he was brilliant, converting on fourth-and-5 from the 5-yard line on a pass to Cameron Brate for a first down on the final drive.
"Me and Mike (Evans) ran mirror concepts on both sides,’’ Godwin said. "I thought Mike was going to get the ball. I ran my route to win and when the ball was in the air, it was man, just go make a play.’’
No matter what you think of Winston, he has played his best football since returning from the shoulder injury Dec. 3. He had thrown the ball on time with touch and accuracy.
But after three seasons, while his interception rate had dropped entering Sunday’s game, he still doesn’t protect the football.
His first pick was on a rollout that he forced to Evans, and Saints rookie Marcus Williams broke from behind the Bucs receiver. The second one was a scramble play where Peyton Barber got behind the defender, but Winston threw it short.
The third one showed bad judgement and a lack of awareness of the score and situation.
"I played terrible,’’ Winston said after passing for 363 yards with the TD and three INTs. "But we won, and that’s all that matters.’’
The game felt like one of those New Year’s Eve lookbacks at all the terrible things that happened in 2017.
There was Winston throwing the football to the wrong team. Not once. Not twice. Three times, including the last one in the Saints end zone.
There was Murray channeling his inner Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk by missing an extra point.
There was the Bucs special teams taking out the red capes and playing matador on a 106-yard kickoff return to suck the life out of Raymond James Stadium after a brilliant opening drive for a touchdown.
Zach Line caught a 3-yard pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees for a touchdown with 7:07 left in the game to cap a 92-yard drive.
The surprise on Friday may not have been that the Bucs informed Koetter he would return to coach the Bucs for 2018. It may be that he agreed to do it the way this team plays.
But even with the horrendous record, the Bucs had a chance to enter the New Year feeling good.
"I’m certainly appreciative to the Glazer family for everything they’ve done for me and my family and they’ve given this franchise," Koetter said. "They’ve put us in the position to win.
"It took a lot of courage for the Glazer family to bring me back and the staff with the record what it is. I really appreciate that.’’
Winston was even more emphatic that Bucs fans should believe in the decision to give Koetter another year.
"We showed a lot of people we should have faith in Dirk Koetter. We played a lot of good football, we just had a lot of unfortunate things happen.
"When we’re healthy, we can beat the heck out of anybody. If we believe in him, you should believe in him, too.’’
The Saints still clinched the division when the Falcons beat the Panthers. The Bucs went 1-5 in the division and were 3-7 in games decided by one score.
Koetter thinks it can turn around quickly.
"New Orleans is a perfect example of that,’’ Koetter said. "They win our division and they deserve to, they’re a fantastic football team. This is a really tough division. New Orleans had two or three losing seasons in a row and here they are winning our division. They made a couple changes, they hit on a couple draft picks, and here they are.
"I believed all along we’re not that far off, but your record is what your record is and we’ve got to start rebuilding that.’’
In the end, the Bucs needed that win. To take something into the offseason. To begin the New Year.
"The things we overcame tonight are the same things that hurt us all season," Koetter said. "Some of those things are things we’re going to have to address. At the same time, it starts with the competitive fire to hang in there.’’