1. Bucs

Bucs' surge earning them league-wide notice as legitimate playoff contenders

Bucs strong safety Keith Tandy (37) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a Phillip Rivers pass in the end zone. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Bucs strong safety Keith Tandy (37) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a Phillip Rivers pass in the end zone. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Dec. 5, 2016

A month ago, after a desultory showing in a Thursday night loss to the Falcons dropped them to 3-5, the Bucs weren't giving even their own fans much to talk about.

But after bouncing back with four straight wins— taking down two of the NFL's best teams in the Chiefs and Seahawks along the way — Tampa Bay is generating buzz around the league as a legitimate contender to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

"Believe it or not, the Buccaneers are in this thing,'' writes Dieter Kurtenbach of Fox Sports in a story headlined "The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the playoff sleeper no one is talking about.''

Kurtenbach credits the return of running back Doug Martin for bringing balance to an offense that had been leaning heavily on Jameis Winston and Mike Evans, and a defense on which a different unit stars each week for sparking the turnaround.

"The threat that this defense could be this good every week and this offense, with Jameis Winston — who has been really good in November — and Mike Evans, who is separating as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, is only getting better should strike fear into every team in the league down the stretch,'' Kurtenbach writes.

The Bucs' 28-21 victory over the Chargers Sunday in San Diego moved them into the second wild-card spot and "reinforced that they are indeed a major factor in the NFC playoff race,'' Mark Maske writes in a Washington Post story entitled "It's time to take Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers seriously.''

Maske likes Winston's leadership skills and passing ability, as well as the strides the Bucs quarterback has made in his second season.

Though the Falcons currently hold a slight tiebreaker advantage in the NFC South, Maske cites Tampa Bay's recent play and friendly upcoming schedule as reasons the Bucs might overtake them.

"It no longer is a given that the Falcons will win the NFC South,'' Maske writes. "And it is far, far from a given that the Buccaneers will be home for the NFC playoffs.''

Jenna Laine, who covers the Bucs for ESPN, describes the scene of elation outside the Bucs locker room following the win in San Diego. Co-chairmen Bryan and Joel Glazer exchanged hugs, along with COO Bryan Ford and GM Jason Licht.

"The Bucs are playoff contenders,'' Laine exclaims in her story, "Buccaneers starting to believe and it's culminating in playoff push.'' "Read it out loud. Say it twice. Yes, it's really true.''

Analyst Brian Billick, who won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Ravens, counts himself among the believers. Asked "Are the Buccaneers for real?'' during an NFL Network segment, Billick responded, "Absolutely, particularly with the way they're playing defense.''

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Billick said he has been impressed with the Bucs' propensity for creating turnovers and the rhythm Winston is developing with Evans, as well as the team's ability to win on the road.

"They are getting hot at the right time,'' Billick said.

Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, the former Bucs and Colts head coach who is now a studio analyst on NBC's Football Night in America, particularly liked the timing of the Bucs' win over the Chargers, calling it "huge''.

"Jameis Winston has this team believing and the D is starting to make plays,'' Dungy tweeted.


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