Quarterback Jameis Winston and other members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said it back in the summer in training camp. The Buccaneers, they said, were ready to be a winning team and a playoff contender this season in Winston’s second year in Tampa.
They were right.
It didn’t appear that way at times this season, particularly when the Buccaneers followed an opening triumph at Atlanta with three straight losses. But they have hung tough, and with Sunday’s victory at San Diego they reinforced that they are indeed a major factor in the NFC playoff race.
The Buccaneers upped their record to 7-5, moving into a virtual tie with the Falcons for first place in the NFC South. The Falcons currently hold the tie-breaker advantage based on a superior division record. But the Buccaneers moved ahead of the Washington Redskins for the second wild-card spot in the NFC. Tampa has won four straight and six of eight games, and the Buccaneers have a 5-1 road record on the season.
Winston delivered in crunch time Sunday, throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate with just more than nine minutes remaining in the game to put the Buccaneers in front. He threw a two-point conversion pass to wide receiver Mike Evans, and the Tampa defense sealed the 28-21 win when safety Keith Tandy intercepted a pass by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the end zone with just less than three minutes left.
These Buccaneers are for real. They have beaten the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks during their four-game winning streak.
Winston has made strides in his second season. He threw his 12th interception of the season Sunday, part of the growing process for a young quarterback. He needs to continue to work on reducing his mistakes.
But no one ever has questioned his on-field leadership skills or his abilities as a pure passer. He has thrown for 3,180 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season, and his teammates seem to genuinely like and respect him. He also has been, by all accounts, a solid citizen off the field so far during his NFL tenure, with the sort of professional approach that a team wants from its franchise-centerpiece player.
The Buccaneers still must play at Dallas on Dec. 18. But their other three remaining games are against NFC South foes, home and away meetings with the New Orleans Saints and a matchup with the Carolina Panthers in Tampa to close the regular season.
The Falcons suddenly are headed in the wrong direction, losing two of their past three games. They are 3-4 since their 4-1 start. The Falcons’ remaining schedule is not exactly demanding, with games against the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Panthers and Saints. But can Atlanta be trusted even against inferior competition?
It no longer is a given that the Falcons will win the NFC South.
And it is far, far from a given that the Buccaneers will be home for the NFC playoffs.