The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 5-4 and just one game out of the playoff picture, but this is a team that will be a legitimate contender in the NFC this season.
A number of factors—from quarterback Josh Freeman's rebound to improvements on defense to big hits this offseason—have vaulted the Bucs from the division cellar to arguably one team no one wants to play come January.
To make the postseason, the Bucs will likely have to finish 5-2 down the stretch. And even then (remember 2010?), the playoffs are no guarantee at 10-6. But this is a football team built to both make and potentially win in the postseason.
In the following slides, we present five reasons why the Bucs are legitimate contenders in the NFC this season.
It's not hard to understand how the Bucs have turned things around in 2012, and it likely starts with Freeman.
After a disappointing season in 2011, when he dropped over 20 points in passer rating (95.0 to 74.6) and nearly quadrupled his interceptions (six to 22), Freeman has rebounded nicely this season. His passer rating is currently at a career-high 98.2, and he's on pace to throw for 4,000 yards, 32 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.
In each of the Bucs' last five games—a stretch in which they've gone 4-1—Freeman has finished with a passer rating above 100.0.
And while his completion percentage is down (56.8 in 2012, 59.8 career), the yards per attempt is way up (8.27, 7.03 career). The Bucs are making more plays downfield in the passing game, but Freeman is turning it over much less.
The Bucs have been winning with offense lately, but don't discount how well the run defense has played this season.
Over nine games, Tampa Bay has held six teams under 100 total yards rushing, and only the Washington Redskins (with Robert Griffin III) and Minnesota Vikings (Adrian Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher) were able to hurt the Bucs on the ground.
The result has been the NFL's top-ranked rush defense in 2012 at just 80.1 yards a game and a 3.5 yards-per-carry average. Late in the season and into playoff time, stopping the run grows in importance.
The Buccaneers were one of the most active teams in free agency this past offseason, and arguably the prized jewel of their haul—receiver Vincent Jackson—has been a huge success.
Signed to a five-year, $55.55 million deal, Jackson has caught 36 passes for 769 yards (eighth in the NFL) and six touchdowns (10th) this season. His yards-per-catch average of 21.4 is second in the NFL.
Teamed with Mike Williams, who has 31 catches for 568 yards and five touchdowns, Jackson provides the Bucs arguably one of the best one-two punches at receiver in the NFC. Few teams in the conference have a pair of tough, physical cornerbacks who can consistently handle Jackson and Williams on the perimeter, especially when Freeman is playing as well as he is in 2012.
The big wart for the Buccaneers—their 32nd-ranked pass defense—isn't as bad as it looks on the surface. Sure, Eli Manning threw for more than 500 yards earlier this season, and Carson Palmer for more than 400. But turnovers have been the saving grace for this unit.
The Bucs' 15 interceptions are third in the NFC and third overall in the NFL, which has helped Tampa Bay maintain a turnover margin of plus-11 through nine games (also third best in the NFL).
And remember, both the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots were ranked in the bottom two of the NFL in pass defense last season. But both relied on a bevy of turnovers, and the Packers won 15 regular season games while the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl. A top pass defense, at least yardage-wise, is not a prerequisite to being good in the NFL any longer.
The player that ties this whole thing together for the Bucs may be rookie running back Doug Martin. We all know his 251-yard, four-touchdown performance, but Martin has really come on in all areas of running back play.
In addition to rushing for the fourth-most yards (862) and second-most touchdowns (seven), Martin has also developed into a comfortable safety valve in the passing game (23 catches, 296 yards) and a willing pass blocker. What Ray Rice is to the Baltimore Ravens, Martin is for the Bucs.
And maybe the most important part of the equation for Martin is the effect its had on the offense as a whole.
Last season, the Bucs were dead last in rushing attempts and 30th in rushing yards. Through nine games in 2012, the Bucs are up to 14th in attempts, 11th in yards and sixth in rushing average. That balance and production will be important as the playoffs approach.