What happens now that the Bucs have out-kicked their expectations?
After climbing from 1-3 to 5-5, is this a fortune .500 team or one that could actually end the club's seven-year playoff drought?
As Bucs coach Lovie Smith would say, let's talk about the relevant in the room. The Bucs are tied with the Seattle Seahawks, one game behind the Atlanta Falcons (6-4) for the final NFC wild card spot. The Bucs host the Falcons Dec. 6 at Raymond James Stadium.
That's what makes today's game at Indianapolis (5-5) so compelling. It marks the first time since 2012 the Bucs have entered the last weekend in November without a losing record. A modest two-game winning streak has at least put some pep in the step of the Bucs.
"No doubt. I talk about being relevant. That gives you a little more bounce," Smith said. "You take coaching a little bit better. Everybody feels the sense of urgency a little bit more. You just want to be in it in November and have a chance. We have that."
Bucs linebacker Lavonte David has never experienced a winning record as he concludes his fourth pro season. But he says this one feels different.
"Yeah, I think so, man, I think so," David said. "We've been going through a whole lot these past couple years, and now we're in a situation where positive things are happening and we can finally try to take advantage of it. That's the mind-set right now."
The Bucs enter this game as a three-point underdog against the Colts but, assuming they continue this arc, should only be underdogs in possibly two of their remaining games — next week at home against the Falcons and Jan. 3 at Carolina.
After Friday's practice, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said he doesn't believe the Bucs are headed for a letdown. In fact, he said, the Bucs are enjoying winning too much.
"It's a blessing, and you don't want to take it for granted … because of what's happened in the past," McCoy said. "I think guys are kind of tired of (losing). I don't think guys are going to let up. We like the feeling we've had the last couple weeks and we want to keep it going."
There are solid reasons why the Bucs' sudden surge in the standings might not be a mirage.
• The Bucs can run. Tampa Bay is second in the NFL in average rushing offense per game (142.2) and Doug Martin's 941 rushing yards trail only the Vikings' Adrian Peterson. The offensive line could get another boost today with the expected return of rookie guard Ali Marpet, who missed the past two games with an ankle sprain.
"To be a tough football team you need to be able to run the football," Smith said. "Run it when they know you are going to run it. We've been able to do that which is a good thing."
• The rookie quarterback is special. Jameis Winston struggled during the Bucs' 1-3 start, throwing six touchdowns and seven interceptions. The best thing he has done lately is protect the football, throwing nine TDs and only two INTs in the past six games.
"Jameis is playing outstanding football," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "His DNA is right. He's wired the right way. Obviously he has a tremendous amount of courage and confidence. He's tough as damn nails. He sits in the pocket and he's not afraid to take a lick — he's got great pocket presence and poise and leadership ability. The measurables are all there, but the intangibles are just off the charts."
• The defense has righted the ship. Through the first six games, the Bucs defense yielded nearly 30 points a game, tied for 31st in the NFL. In the past four games Tampa Bay has held opponents to 17.2 points a game, including a total of 23 points over the past two weeks. Cornerbacks Sterling Moore and Jude Adjei-Barimah have spearheaded the turnaround.
The Bucs also are third in the league with 20 takeaways — 10 fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions. "It's just not a good defensive effort unless we can take the ball away," Smith said. "It's about scoring or getting the ball back for the offense. We are getting better with those. We are not the best in the league at either one of those, but I would still say it's trending in that direction."
As David said, everything is possible for the Bucs this season.
"At the end of the day, at the end of the year, whenever that time is, whatever our record is hopefully we can get in the playoffs," he said. "But right now we're just trying to do what we do."
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.