The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' four-game winning streak put them in the NFC playoff picture entering the final quarter of the NFL season. As part of our Bucs Quarterly Report, we asked the Tampa Bay Times Bucs' coverage team for the biggest reason to believe in the Bucs. Here's their responses:
Leadership backed up by performance
Rick Stroud, @NFLStroud: Jameis Winston's leadership. He's backing it up with performance.
Winston has galvanized this football team in his own youthful, goofy way. But it's genuine and players respond to it. Coach Dirk Koetter says Winston says things players won't say or wish they could say, so we can only imagine he holds everyone accountable, including himself. More importantly, he's performing well and making players around him better.
The opportunity they've been waiting for
Greg Auman, @gregauman: Confidence and momentum. Bucs have waited long for this opportunity.
Relevant football in December is something Gerald McCoy, Doug Martin and other Bucs veterans haven't known. Jameis Winston has cut down on his turnovers, the Bucs' run game is at full strength for the first time since the start of the season, and the defense has made a remarkable turnaround from the team that gave up 73 points in five days in losing to the Raiders and Falcons.
With this four-game winning streak, the Bucs now have the confidence of being in the playoffs -- opponents like the Saints and Panthers are at least two games back, so they don't have the same incentive as the Bucs do down the stretch. It may take a 3-1 finish for the Bucs to secure their first postseason appearance in nine years, but this is a schedule that makes 2-2 very reasonable, so it's just finding one more unlikely win in the last month of the season.
Atlanta has an easier final four games than the Bucs do, so Tampa Bay needs help to outpace the Falcons and get a division title. But they've gotten help in the last month, with other teams stumbling as they stack win after win to get to where they are. Each week, the percentages get a little friendlier for the Bucs, but they need to continue that with a home win against the Saints to keep the push going.
Begins and ends with Jameis Winston
Ernest Hooper, @hoop4you: Inconsistency has marked Winston's 2016 season, but when he's been on, he's delivered in remarkable and inspiring ways. Every time Winston takes the field, Bucs fans and, more importantly, his teammates believe they have a chance to not only win, but to defy the odds. With Winston, they can win in Kansas City, they can knock off Seattle, they can produce victories on the West Coast. His brilliance on the field and in the lockerroom makes him a difference maker.
They've learned how to win
Tom Jones, @tomwjones: This is a team that used to find way to lose games. Now they are finding ways to win them. What's even more promising for the Bucs is that they are starting to win games even when they don't play their best football. Case in point: last Sunday's game against San Diego. Not great. The defense was shaky. QB Jameis Winston was inconsistent. The running game was non-existent. And seemed like the Bucs lost a receiver every other snap. Yet, Tampa Bay found a way to grind out a victory -- the sign of a team learning how to win. And while Atlanta's schedule over the final month is fairly easy, the Bucs schedule isn't too, too hard. Toss out the game at Dallas and the Bucs don't play a team they can't beat. Two games with New Orleans sandwich the trip to Jerry World. Both Saints games are more than winnable. Then comes a season finale at home against a Panthers team that almost assuredly will be counting the seconds until the end of the season.
The Winston protection plan
Thomas Bassinger, @tometrics: The Bucs are doing a better job protecting Jameis Winston.
Winston took a beating in the first half of the season, absorbing 8.6 hits per game. During Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak, his jersey has stayed a little cleaner.
In the Week 9 43-28 loss to the Falcons, the Bucs' offensive line allowed 18 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the fifth time it allowed at least 14 pressures, and each time, Tampa Bay lost.
The unit has improved recently, partly because the team has been asking its receivers and tight ends to help in pass protection by executing more chip blocks. The Bucs allowed 11 pressures against the Bears, nine pressures against the Chiefs, nine pressures against the Seahawks and six pressures against the Chargers.
The guy at quarterback
Martin Fennelly, @mjfennelly: It's the home stretch and Jameis Winston is feeling it. He smells the playoffs. He feels the playoffs. The Winner His Whole Life thing is kicking in. We're seeing a flowering.
He has cut down on catastrophic moments and replaced them with remarkable ones. The big play. The big completion. The big moment.
He's not perfect. He's young. He's growing. But this will be a playoff team if his will has anything to do with it, and he might just have a lot to do with it. He makes people believe. He takes them along.