Winston-led Buccaneers gaining confidence by the victory
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) A rare winning streak, a .500 record this deep into a season for the first time since 2012, and legitimate aspirations of creeping back into the NFC playoff race.
There are plenty signs of improvement when it comes to the Jameis Winston-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have won four of six following a 1-3 start to - in the words of coach Lovie Smith - become ''relevant again.''
A 45-17 rout at Philadelphia gave the Bucs (5-5) consecutive wins for the first time in two years, and Winston is only one of the reasons Smith is confident his team can continue to climb.
The No. 1 overall pick tied a rookie record with five touchdown passes against the Eagles, Doug Martin topped 200 yards rushing for the second time in his career, and Tampa Bay's defense forced four turnovers in shutting down Philadelphia's fast-break offense.
Winston has thrown for nine TDs with just two interceptions in the past six games, with both of the turnovers coming during a victory over Dallas.
The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner also is emerging as a leader in the locker room, as well as on the field, after deferring to established veterans such as Gerald McCoy, Vincent Jackson, Logan Mankins and Lavonte David early in the season.
''To be a leader, first off, you have to be a good football player,'' for teammates to buy into following, Smith said.
''What I'm talking about is just that. He's playing good ball, making all the right decisions, no one works harder than him,'' the coach added. ''Whatever you're looking for, for the guy that's out in front, he's doing and he's doing it well.''
The Bucs amassed 521 yards of offense against Philadelphia, and Winston threw TD passes to five different receivers.
Martin averaged 8.7 yards per carry while rushing for 235 yards - the most in the NFL since the fourth-year pro ran for 251 against Oakland as a rookie in 2012.
Martin made the Pro Bowl that year, finishing third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage behind Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson. After being slowed by injuries the past two seasons, the 26-year-old running back is second in the league in rushing with 941 yards.
The re-emergence of Martin comes after the Bucs declined a fifth-year option on his contract for 2016, meaning the 5-foot-9, 233-pounder who had runs of 58 and a franchise-record 84 yards against the Eagles could become a free agent after this season.
''That's not a bad thing,'' Smith said Monday.
''I think it's benefited Doug as much as anything. He's in a great position right now,'' the coach said. ''I don't think Doug came into the season thinking, hey, he wasn't wanted around here. Complete opposite of that ... and we've put him in a position to have the type of year he's having right now. I think it's all good. If I'm Doug Martin, I'm pretty happy'' the option wasn't picked up.
Martin's success has taken some of the pressure off Winston to carry the team. The rookie completed 19 of 29 passes for 246 yards against the Eagles, finishing with a season-best quarterback rating of 131.6.
''We see him in more and more situations, and it seems like each week he shows something that we haven't seen. I think it's going to be that way,'' Smith said. ''He's a good football player. When you're a football junkie like that, and you're just constantly working on making improvement, acknowledging what has happened, what you need to do better, you see results like that.''
Meanwhile, Smith said the Bucs still have not received official word from the NFL regarding a possible four-game suspension of rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs.
Alexander acknowledged after the game in Philadelphia he expects to hear from the league soon. He said he believes his failed test was caused by an energy drink he has used since high school.
''I'm just waiting on the appeal and the appeal process, but it's my fault. I didn't know,'' said Alexander, a fourth-round draft pick who earned the starting middle linebacker job in training camp. ''I have never been in any type of trouble or anything, so it was a surprise to me. I didn't know what I took or anything.''
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