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Saints vs. Bucs Turning Point, Week 14: The evolution of Dirk Koetter and his team

[Getty Images]
[Getty Images]
Published Dec. 22, 2016

They had the ball at the 1-yard line with a chance to tie the game before halftime.

Then they started going backward. Penalty. Dropped pass. Sack.

They had a timeout, but it was useless. There weren't enough seconds left to take one more shot at the end zone.

So they kicked a field goal on third down.

Sound like anyone you know?

No, not the Bucs. On Sunday, it was the other guys. The Saints.

These Bucs? They're not losers. Not anymore.

Lately, they seem to have an answer for everything.

Their 16-11 victory over the Saints makes it five wins in a row. If they add three more, they're in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Not long ago, the Bucs didn't have answers.

They were the ones who couldn't manage the clock. They were the ones who couldn't protect their quarterback. They were the ones who turned the ball over.

That has flipped. In each of the Bucs' past five games, one message has emerged: We're not going to beat ourselves. We will, though, watch you beat yourself.

Maybe all head coach Dirk Koetter needed was some time, time to change the culture, to make mistakes and then learn from them. This is his 10th season as a coach in the NFL, but it's his first as head coach. A rookie.

Go back to Week 3. Jeff Fisher beat Koetter. Look at them now. Fisher's out in Los Angeles. Koetter? He's still in Tampa. Each game he coaches is bigger than the last, and with each win, the case for coach of the year grows stronger.

One coach sank. The other adapted.

Consider some of Koetter's moves since the Bucs' listless loss to the Falcons on Thursday Night Football nearly six weeks ago.

Against the Bears, he adjusted the offense to improve pass protection. The line — featuring two players taking their first NFL snaps — needed help, so Koetter asked his receivers and tight ends to chip block Chicago's edge rushers.

In Kansas City the next week, Koetter beat the Chiefs at what they do best: ball-control offense. The Bucs were balanced, patient and opportunistic, capitalizing on the Chiefs' one crucial error — an Alex Smith interception in the fourth quarter.

Koetter was more aggressive against the Seahawks. On the Bucs' second possession, he decided Mike Evans and Richard Sherman should get acquainted and go for a long run down the field. Mike, meet Richard. Richard, meet Mike. He scores touchdowns. Watch.

In the first half against the Chargers, the Bucs, already thin at receiver, lost Cecil Shorts and Adam Humphries. When San Diego focused on shutting down Evans, Tampa Bay turned to tight end Cameron Brate, who caught six passes for 86 yards and the game-winning touchdown.

On Sunday, we watched Koetter successfully navigate the Bucs' treacherous kicking situation. Late in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay had the chance to kick a 54-yard field goal that could have given it an eight-point lead. Second-rounder Roberto Aguayo, however, had attempted just one field goal beyond 50 yards this season, and he missed it. From 40 or more yards out, he had made four of nine tries.

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So Koetter sent punter Bryan Anger onto the field instead. His punt landed at the New Orleans 3-yard line, and six plays later, Koetter's decision was further validated when the defense intercepted Drew Brees a third time.

Let's not forget, either, the misfortune and controversy the Bucs have pulled through. Players have lost loved ones. Gerald McCoy's father was injured during a burglary at McCoy's home. Mike Evans protested the election of Donald Trump by sitting during the national anthem.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Evans' protest, the topic has faded quickly. Compare Tampa Bay with San Francisco. There, Colin Kaepernick's protest has defined the 49ers' season. Here, the focus is on football.

In the past five weeks, Koetter has beaten coaches who have won a total of 35 playoff games and appeared in six Super Bowls.

Next: the best team in the NFC. The Cowboys. In Dallas. On Sunday Night Football.

Can Tampa Bay do it again?

We've been asking that question for weeks now, and each time, the Bucs and Koetter have had an answer for whatever has come their way.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.