Jones: Bucs begin to believe playoffs are possible

Bucs receiver Mike Evans makes the go-ahead touchdown grab in the fourth quarter. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Bucs receiver Mike Evans makes the go-ahead touchdown grab in the fourth quarter. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Dec. 7, 2015

TAMPA — Bucs fullback Jorvorskie Lane walked down the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium and screamed, to no one in particular but to anyone who could hear, "That is how you DO it!"

A few steps behind, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins yelled, just as loud, "Four more to go!"

Hoopin' and hollerin', dancin' and smilin', the Bucs, one by one, celebrated in their own way. High fives, and low fives. Back slaps and hugs. Their steps had pep and their words had fire in the wake of Tampa Bay's season-saving (for now) 23-19 victory over the Falcons.

This is how a team looks when players believe in themselves. This is how a team sounds when players believe the playoffs are real possibility. The standings back up that kind of thinking.

"Our confidence," defensive tackle Akeem Spence said, "is at an all-time high right now."

Sounds like fun.

"It's fun because guys are playing for one another and we're getting the results that we want," Spence continued. "We just had to find the missing pieces. Now we're putting it all together and we're having fun with it."

The games aren't easy. The victories aren't always pretty. Bucs fans are just as likely to spend as much time throwing pillows at the television screen as they are jumping up and down.

But just think about how far this franchise has come. Exactly one year ago today, the Bucs were creamed in Detroit for their third consecutive loss in what would be a season-ending six-game losing streak to wrap up a dismal 2-14 season.

Now many of those Bucs are wearing smiles on their faces — the same faces that had sand kicked into them for the past several years.

"You look at the guys who were here last year," rookie quarterback Jameis Winston said. "Look in their eyes and they say, 'We're about to win this game. We believe.' And when you believe and you have the want-to, you got that mentality that you always persevere, you're hard to beat."

The Bucs are becoming a hard team to beat of late. They have won three of four to put themselves in solid position in the NFC playoff race. There's work to be done, for sure. There are holes to patch and mistakes to eliminate. A break or two wouldn't hurt.

But this team is now 6-6 because it deserves to be 6-6. In Greg Schiano's first season back in 2012, the Bucs were 6-6 after 12 games. But the arrow was pointing down back then. This 6-6 feels more durable, like it's just the start of something.

"We haven't had six wins in a long time," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "We should feel a lot better. We've come a long way. We have a long ways to go, but it's fun to watch the guys grow each day."

The Bucs led 16-12 when the fourth quarter started. Atlanta took the lead on a touchdown with just more than 10 minutes left. In year's past, with a sputtering offense usually led by an incompetent quarterback, the Bucs would have had no chance.

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But with Winston, who is making anyone who thought he was going to be a bust look like a complete nincompoop right now, the Bucs always have a chance.

Aside from going 4-for-4 for 42 yards on the final drive, Winston turned in one of the most spectacular individual plays of the season, scrambling 20 I-can't-believe-he-wasn't-down yards on third and 19. In the huddle three plays later, he asked who wanted to score the winning touchdown. When receiver Mike Evans said, "Me, me, me," Winston obliged, hitting Evans with a 6-yard TD pass with 1:01 left.

Linebacker Lavonte David then snuffed out Atlanta's last gasp by picking off Matt Ryan.

"This is the most confident this team has been," running back Doug Martin said, "and I'm happy to be a part of it."

A part of it? Martin is a major reason for it after an impressive 95 yards rushing.

Everywhere you look, the Bucs' best players are playing like their best players. Start with Winston, who was superb Sunday. Again. There was Martin. Again.

Vincent Jackson had 87 big-time receiving yards. Evans overcame an early drop to catch the winning TD. The defense, missing key cog Gerald McCoy, had three sacks, and David made the flash defensive play.

And they closed out the game the way good teams do: a clutch 80-yard drive by the offense followed by a key stop by the defense. As Lane said coming off the field, "That is how you do it."

"We should get confidence when you can finish a game like that," Smith said. "We see that in practice, though. We've been getting better. Again, it's good to see it show up on Sundays, too."

For many teams, particularly those trying to find respectability and consistency by just getting into the playoffs, the goal is quite simple: get to .500 with a month left and you just might have a shot.

Well, here we are — 12 games into the season and the Bucs are .500. A quarter of a season is left. That's four games. The next month will determine whether Tampa Bay can make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. Three wins might do it.

Can they get three wins? They sure sound confident.