Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston celebrates as he leaves the field after their win against the San Diego Chargers during an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gregory Bull
December 07, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) There are no more lingering questions about whether the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are relevant again.

The team's four-game winning streak not only has catapulted Jameis Winston and his supporting cast into playoff contention, but the Bucs (7-5) also are tied for first place in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons.

Winston has cut down on mistakes that hindered the offense earlier in the season, Doug Martin has returned from an injury that sidelined him seven weeks to give the team at least the threat of a productive running attack, and a defense that has been a liability at times has rebounded from a shoddy two-game stretch to do its part in the turnaround.

''I just think we're one of those teams that is starting to believe,'' coach Dirk Koetter said. ''It is crazy what confidence can do when you start making plays. It seems to build on itself.''

The winning streak is Tampa Bay's longest since 2012, when the Bucs got off to a 6-4 start before losing five of their final six games to finish 7-9. The team is two games over .500 this late in a season for the first time in six years and sitting atop the division standings through Week 13 for the first time since 2008, when a 9-3 start was followed a four-game season-ending slide that cost former coach Jon Gruden his job.

The Bucs have missed the playoffs the past eight seasons and haven't won a postseason game since their 2002 Super Bowl run.

''It feels great, but we have not arrived. We have to keep playing one game at a time,'' Winston said after Sunday's 28-21 win over San Diego improved Tampa Bay's record to 5-1 on the road, compared to 2-4 at home, where the Bucs will host division rival New Orleans on Sunday.

''We have to take advantage of the opportunity. We cannot stop now,'' Winston added. ''We have to keep going. We have to keep playing. I believe we will because we're playing so well as a family right now, and it's really inspiring.''

The surge begins with the play of Winston, who threw seven interceptions and lost two fumbles during a three-game losing streak that dropped Tampa Bay's record to 1-3 a month into the season. He has thrown for 15 touchdowns with just four interceptions and two lost fumbles while the Bucks have won six of the last eight to fuel the push for their first playoff berth since 2007.

The No. 1 overall pick from last year's draft has emerged as the team's unquestioned leader in the locker room, too.

''I think there's definitely something to that,'' Koetter said Monday of the second-year quarterback's ability to command the attention and respect of teammates.

''And there's different styles. I'm sure Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and we're seeing one of the best in Drew Brees this week, they all have their own style,'' Koetter added. ''Leadership can take on many forms, but you also have to be able to back it up with your play. And, Jameis has done that.''

The Bucs are 4-0 since Martin returned from a hamstring injury that had sidelined him since Week 2. And even though, the league's second-leading rusher from last season hasn't run for the impressive numbers the team is accustomed to getting, he's clearly taken some of the burden off Winston and receiver Mike Evans to carry the offense.

Martin rushed for 45 yards on 17 attempts against San Diego, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry. He also scored his second touchdown of the season.

''Doug makes our offense go. All you've got to do is look at all the tape for last year,'' Koetter said. ''We spin a lot of stuff off of how Doug plays.''

Meanwhile, the defense has made strides since yielding over 1,000 yards during losses to Oakland and Atlanta within a five-day span last month. The have at least two takeaways in four consecutive games, and a rejuvenated pass rush sacked Russell Wilson six times during a 14-5 win over Seattle and two more against Phillip Rivers on Sunday.

''Coach Dirk is harping on playing complimentary football. Special teams, offense, and defense, and that is what we are doing,'' Evans said. ''Everybody is giving it all that they've got. We are just trying to find a way to win.''


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