1. Bucs

Bucs-Panthers: Don’t count out Tampa Bay just yet

It's a long shot, but Bucs are still alive in the playoff race.

TAMPA — Hey, don't count these guys out just yet. They're still alive.


It's a longshot, but the Bucs still have hope after they won their second in a row, a solid 24-17 victory Sunday over Carolina.

They are 5-7.

Not bad. But, sadly, not good enough.

Just think where this team would be if they had won just one more game. Unfortunately, for Tampa Bay, that thought likely will stick in its craw until next season. You get the sense this season is going to end with that bitter taste of having lost just one game too many.

What a difference it would be if the Bucs were 6-6 right now. And when you think about that, you can't help but think about the ones that got away.

Maybe it was the Giants game. If coach Dirk Koetter had started Jameis Winston that day instead of Ryan Pick-patrick, the Bucs would be on fire right now.

Maybe if the red zone hadn't be the dead zone against Washington, the Bucs would have won that game.

The Cincinnati game when Winston kept throwing the ball to the wrong-colored jerseys and Ryan Fitzpatrick's magic was a little too late is another game that gives you night sweats.

Once again, Koetter says you can't play the "woulda, coulda, shoulda'' game, but you can't help it. That's what this season has turned into.

If the Bucs win the rest of their games — and if they play like they have the past two weeks that is possible — they'll finish 9-7.

"We can't lose,'' Winston said. "We can't stop playing like we're playing right now. I love the way we're playing.''

Who doesn't?

The defense forced four turnovers Sunday. Winston hasn't turned the ball over in two games. Even without DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard and an offensive line that leaks oil, the offense is still getting up and down the field and scoring enough points.

To put it simply, the Bucs are playing winning football.

Which brings you back to the regrets of 2018. Why haven't the Bucs played like this all season?

Why has it taken until now for Winston to get it through his skull that you can't turn the ball over? Why has it taken until now for the defense to start creating turnovers? Why has it taken until now for the Bucs to find a kicker who doesn't get the shanks every time he lines up?

Maybe if Winston doesn't get suspended for the first three games this season is completely different. Maybe if defensive coordinator Mike Smith had been fired before the season instead of during it, the Bucs would be in a better spot.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The part that cannot be questioned is the Bucs' will.

They're beat up on defense. They're starting to get beat up on offense. They've had quarterback controversies. They fired the kicker and the defensive coordinator. A star receiver (Jackson) asked for a trade. They've lost blowouts and close games.

Yet they have never, ever packed it in. No one has quit. To use a coach's phrase: this team still has "want-to.''

"Our main focus is one game at a time,'' said Winston, spewing out a cliché that, in this case, actually is true. "We got to continue playing one game, one play and just do our best. When we're playing like the Bucs are playing, we can beat anybody.''

You can't dispute that. The Bucs have beaten the Saints. They've beaten the defending-champion Eagles. They could have beaten the Steelers. They've won two in a row. There's no reason to think they can't keep this going.

"The main thing is to just stay steady, man,'' Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. "No matter what happens, just stay the course. Stay the course and everything will turn around.''

Everything has turned around. The Bucs are back on course.

Too bad it feels like it won't be enough.

But it's not over yet.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow @tomwjones