Ready or Not, It's Time to Seriously Consider the Bucs as Playoff Contenders

J.J. Rodriguez@ActofRodContributor IINovember 12, 2012

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 11:  Defensive back Leonard Johnson #29 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates his interception return for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers during the game at Raymond James Stadium on November 11, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
J. Meric/Getty Images

A month ago, the thought would've been irrational; the suggestion, laughable. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers? A playoff team? This season?

Who could've blamed the naysayers?

The Bucs were an unorganized, undisciplined and unintimidating bunch of 20-somethings led by a new head coach and two struggling coordinators. They were 1-3, with their lone victory over an even more dysfunctional Carolina team.

No, midway through October, the playoffs weren't even a thought. There were too many questions and not enough answers to even consider the notion of a postseason berth.

But then a funny thing happened: The wheels started spinning and they've yet to slow down since.

Granted, few of their wins have been pretty, and even fewer have been definitive, but in a game where outcomes are often decided by inches, the Bucs have grown by miles.

Their offense, led by quarterback Josh Freeman, has undergone a midseason renaissance that has seen them score 178 points (35.6/game) over the last five games compared to the combined 82 points (20.5/game) they scored in the four games prior.

Freeman, an early target of frustrated fans, has arguably shown the most dramatic improvement of all, throwing for 1,467 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception, with an average quarterback rating of 118 during the same span. For the season, Freeman has thrown for 2,257 yards, 18 TDs and five interceptions.

Then of course, there's everybody's favorite domesticated rodent, Doug "Muscle Hamster" Martin, who, over the last five games, has combined for 858 total yards and seven TDs, with an eye-popping 5.9 yards-per-carry average.

But most impressive of all, after Sunday's 119 total yardage outing, he eclipsed the late great Walter Payton for most total yards in a three-game span with 605.

Not too bad for a rookie, eh?

And while the offense has been explosive and should be our reason for optimism, I'm sure there are many out there who are skeptical of their chances given how porous the pass defense has been.

But there is even reason for hope in that category as well.

This season, the Bucs have held their opponents to seven or fewer second-half points on six occasions. All told, they've allowed a combined 93 second-half points, of which the Giants and Raiders account for 50 of said points—in the fourth quarter, no less.

In other words, they've held their other seven opponents to 43 combined second-half points this season—or two field goals per game.

That tells me regardless of the fact the secondary can't cover a soul to save its lives in the first half, the coaching staff has been able to make the necessary adjustments to better position themselves for success in the second half.

And that's without even mentioning their top-ranked run defense.

With that said, who knows how the last seven games will shake out. The offense could start to sputter and the defense could forget how to stuff the run. Doug Martin will hit the rookie wall, and Lavonte David could too.

And for goodness sakes, Ronde Barber may finally start to show his age.

But if nothing else, their 5-4 mark is a testament to who they are, and better yet, what is still to come in the weeks, months and seasons ahead.

Yeah, there is a possibility they may slip, trip and fall in the second half and finish 6-10, but doesn't that scenario seem a lot less likely than it did a month ago?

Better yet, don't they look, feel and play like a team cognizant of its troubled past, but eager for its brighter future?

I'm not saying they're a playoff team—I'm just not saying they're not.

And that speaks volumes.


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