The Bucs' victories over Chicago, Kansas City and Seattle have thrust Tampa Bay into the NFC playoff picture. The biggest reason for that three-game winning streak? Here's the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs coverage team's take:
Winning games they aren't supposed to
Greg Auman, @gregauman: The Bucs have won three straight games, largely on a remarkable turnaround by their defense. They've gotten an NFL-high nine takeaways in the last three and they're winning games they weren't supposed to. Before the season, we ranked the five toughest games on Tampa Bay's schedule, and they've played all five and won three: at Carolina, at Kansas City and against Seattle. The next two -- at San Diego and home against New Orleans -- are easier for the Bucs to pull off.
Flipping the field
Thomas Bassinger, @tometrics: As I wrote in Monday's "Turning Point," the Bucs have turned a corner because they've been winning the field position battle. In Tampa Bay's first eight games, opponents started, on average, at their 30-yard line. In the past three games, opponents started at their 23. It's no coincidence that the points the Bucs have allowed per game have dropped from 29 to 10.7.
During Tampa Bay's winning streak, opponents have started 11 drives inside their 20. The results of those possessions: fumble, punt, touchdown, safety, end of game, punt, end of half, punt, punt, punt, punt.
A stand-up defense
Martin Fennelly, @mjfennelly: Defense, defense, defense.
This season began to change when this Bucs defense stood up. They're looking surprisingly athletic. Maybe some of the younger players are getting comfortable in Mike Smith's system. Maybe all of them are. Whatever it is, these guys are playing faster, playing confident.
They dominated Chicago, handled Kansas City, dominated Seattle. Lavonte David appears back on his game. Gerald McCoy, too. Rookies Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence are feeling it. The defense is giving the offense turnovers, and field position, and that helps take the pressure of Jameis Winston. It hasn't been all on him and Mike Evans. The defense has made that possible.
A little R&R
Ernest Hooper, @hoop4you: Two words: rest and recovery. The 11-day break after the Atlanta game gave players like defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald a chance to fully recover from early season injuries. Health and depth upfront allows pass rushers like Noah Spence to play fewer downs. Quarterback pressure remains the single-most important success element for a defense with that has shortcomings in the secondary. Finally, at the risk of being a Debby Downer, I'll point out the three-game winning streak coincides with the three opponents turning in truly weak offensive performances. Give the Bucs credit for helping cause and take advantage of the ineptitude, but San Diego will provide a much different test for the defense.
A top-notch quarterback
Tom Jones, @tomwjones: Two words. Jameis Winston. Talk all you want about young quarterbacks in the NFL, Winston's play the past three weeks puts him at the top of the list. In the three victories against Chicago, Kansas City and Seattle, Winston is 68-for-100 for 763 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. That 68 percent completion rate is higher than his overall season percentage of 61.3 percent. And his play in clutch situations — third downs, red zones, two-minutes drives — has been the best of his career. Hey, it's a quarterback league and the Bucs QB is playing top-notch.
Rick Stroud, @NFLStroud: Mike Smith used the 10 days after the Raiders-Falcons debacle to simplify some things in his porous defense. He also became more aggressive in coverage and bringing pressure. The development of Noah Spence as more than a pass rusher has helped.
Offensively, coach Dirk Koetter went to more max protection for QB Jameis Winston, using WRs and TEs to chip block pass rushers to help the Bucs tackles. Winston, who had been running for his life as the most pressured QB in the NFL, became more confident in the pocket and his accuracy improved. Finally, Mike Evans took over games.