Immediately following the results of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 16-11 victory over their division rival New Orleans Saints, the Bucs moved into the second wild card spot in the NFC East playoff picture. They are tied with the Atlanta Falcons (both 8-5) atop the NFC South, and the two teams split their season series, with the Falcons holding the current tiebreaker due to a better win percentage in common games.
Coming into the season, almost nobody had the Buccaneers as their NFC South favorite, and not many even predicted they would make the playoffs. Following their 6-10 season in 2015, where they finished in the basement of their division, they showed some signs of hope, with rookie QB Jameis Winston winning NFL Rookie of the Year. However, nobody could have expected a turnaround as quick as this. Their team is now on a five-game winning streak, and arguably one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
In their last five games, the Bucs have wins over two of the top Super Bowl contenders in the NFL, beating the Chiefs (10-3) 19-17, and shutting down the Seahawks (8-4-1) 14-5. Do these results make them a legitimate playoff contender?
The answer is yes. The Bucs are getting hot at exactly the right time, and have the right components for a playoff team to have success. First, their quarterback is playing great football, which everybody knows is essential to having any chance in the playoffs. Jameis Winston has an average QB rating of 97.48 over the past five games, and has accumulated 1,327 passing yards (265.4 avg). He threw six TD’s as opposed to three interceptions, and four of these results came against top 15 pass defenses in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings (Defense-adjusted value over average). Standout wide-receiver Mike Evans has established a fantastic connection with Winston, and tight-end Cameron Brate has become a reliable underneath option and red zone threat.
Without a running game, however, any offense will have trouble in the playoffs. The return of Doug Martin has provided the Bucs with a reliable rushing attack since his return two weeks ago, piling up 66 yards and a touchdown this past week against the Saints. While these numbers aren’t by any means outstanding, he has a track record of success, and he is just getting his feet under him since his lengthy absence due to injury. His return should balance their attack and make their offense more potent.
On the defensive side, Tampa Bay has been solid all season, ranking 12th in DVOA for the year. Led by Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Brent Grimes, the Bucs rank 9th against the pass, which is their defensive strength. They are somewhat weak against the run, ranking 23rd, but have been stingy as an overall unit. During their five game win streak, they have given up 12.8 points per game, with their most recent game coming against the high-flying aerial attack of the New Orleans Saints, who they held to 11. They are gaining confidence and playing with aggression, mimicking the way the Seahawks have played defense over the past few years. If they can combine this defense with their emerging offense, they will be a team that nobody wants to play.
However, with the Bucs only holding the last wild-card spot at this point in the season, what would make anyone think they are a playoff team to be reckoned with? The reason lies in their wins this season, with some of their best games coming against top teams in the NFL. Their wins over the Chiefs and Seahawks were extremely impressive, and they played the style of football that wins in the playoffs year after year. Their defense imposed their will against the opposing offense, and their offense played smart football and didn’t turn the ball over. This is the recipe for success in the playoffs, when the weather is cold and every play is important. In addition, looking at the current playoff picture, they would likely need to play either the Cowboys, Lions or Seahawks on the road in a potential second-round matchup. These teams each bring strong offenses, and the Bucs would need their defense to step up to win these games. They have already proven they can do so against the Seahawks, and would need to do the same to have a chance against the Cowboys and Lions. Their recent play suggests they would have a chance.
None of this matters if the Bucs can’t make the playoffs, and their remaining schedule is tough. They still play at the Cowboys and Saints, and close at home against the Panthers. None of these games will be easy, and if they can get through that stretch and into the playoffs, the NFC had better watch out. The Bucs are back and they mean business.