Buccaneers rises to challenge during 5-game winning streak

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Gerald McCoy summed up the mind-set of the suddenly stingy Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.

''It's our job to keep the other team from scoring,'' the four-time Pro Bowl tackle said. ''If they don't score, they don't win.''

The streaking Bucs (8-5) have been as effective as anyone in shutting down opposing offenses during a five-game winning streak that has propelled the team into contention for its first playoff berth in nine years.

Jameis Winston's leadership and progress as a second-year quarterback has commanded most of the attention during the surge, however the play of the McCoy-led defense has been just as important.

The Bucs have held their last five opponents under 21 points, the longest such stretch for the franchise since the last three games of 2009 and the first two of the following season.

You have to go back to 2008 for the last time it happened within the same season.

''They're just playing with a lot of confidence,'' coach Dirk Koetter said, reflecting on Sunday's 16-11 victory over New Orleans , which was held without a touchdown for only the second time in the 11 seasons the quarterback/coach duo of Drew Brees and Sean Payton has been together with the Saints, who lead the NFL in total offense.

The Bucs intercepted Brees three times, giving them a league-leading 23 takeaways since Week 5, and forced New Orleans to settle for field goals on two drives inside the Bucs 5-yard line.

Tampa Bay had the NFL's worst turnover differential through a 1-3 start. The defense has worked its way up to a tie for 11th while helping the team win seven of nine to climb into position to challenge for its first division title and playoff berth since 2007.

''It's great to see,'' Koetter said. ''Some of these guys on defense have been beat up for a few years. It's great to see these guys having the success they're having, it really is.''

McCoy, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, is in his seventh season and has yet to make the playoffs. He shrugged off a question about whether he feels Tampa Bay's defense, which during the current winning streak has held every opponent under 350 yards, is underrated.

''I don't care, we're winning. ... We're winning because we're playing together, not turning the ball over and we're taking the ball away,'' McCoy said. ''We're winning because we're playing as a team.''

And because many of the moves general manager Jason Licht made to fix the defense during the offseason are beginning to pay off.

The Bucs drafted cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III in the first round after signing veteran pass rusher Robert Ayers, Jr., cornerback Brent Grimes and linebacker Daryl Smith in free agency.

Ayers had Tampa Bay's lone sack against the Saints. Hargreaves and Grimes had two of the three interceptions off Brees.

Winston noted that the defense has given some of the league's best quarterbacks fits while allowing just over 12 points per game in wins over Seattle, San Diego and New Orleans the past three weeks.

''Our defense has been playing amazing. It starts with our leaders ... Clinton McDonald, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte (David) have taken it to a whole new level,'' Winston said.

''What they did to Philip Rivers last week, what they did to Drew this week, what they did to Russell Wilson the week before, we are playing good football,'' Winston added. ''But we've got to continue to get better.''

The young team is confident it hasn't peaked.

The Bucs travel to Dallas (11-2) for a prime-time matchup Sunday night, then finish the regular season at New Orleans and home against Carolina.

''It doesn't matter what your record is. You can get hot at any time,'' Hargreaves said. ''We're hot right now, and we're going to try and keep that going.''

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