The Buccaneers will be in the playoff hunt as long as Josh Freeman is playing well.
After a disastrous start to the season where they couldn't score or gain any momentum, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally seemed to figure it out. They won four games in a row, averaging 34.8 points per game and gaining control of their destiny in the race for the wild card.
But in the last two weeks, Tampa Bay has reverted to the unrefined, sloppy early-season play that could doom their playoff hopes. If the Bucs want to make the playoffs in 2012, they have to play better on both sides of the ball and get back to what made them successful.
The season is drawing to a close and two straight losses have the Bucs on the outside looking in. There are a few ways they can find a path into the postseason, and it starts on defense. The rest will come, and could turn Greg Schiano's first year as a head coach into a successful one.
Gerald McCoy must play better and find more ways to get to the quarterback.
Remember those old Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses of the early 2000's? Those defenses redefined how to scheme for the opposition and made life miserable for teams week after week.
The 2012 Buccaneers don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of anyone. Tampa Bay ranks 32nd in the league in passing yards allowed and has only sacked the quarterback a total of 18 times. The defensive line, previously thought to be one of the league's brightest young units, has crumbled in terms of pass rushing. The run defense is superb (first in the league), but too often, opposing quarterbacks have a clean pocket to throw from.
In this era in the NFL, quarterbacks win games. One of the best ways to beat the opposition is to neutralize the quarterback. The Bucs simply haven't shown any ability to do that. They've been shredded by Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and every other quarterback that has played against them.
Until Tampa Bay can find some semblance of a pass rush, they won't get anywhere. It's hard to make a run to the playoffs if you're giving up the most passing yards in a pass-happy league.
Rookie running back Doug Martin has had a sensational year in Tampa Bay.
One thing the Buccaneers can be very happy about is the play of rookie running back Doug Martin.
His selection in the draft was somewhat controversial because the Bucs already had a capable running back in LeGarette Blount, but there's no questioning the decision now. Martin is tied for the most rushing yards by a rookie and has a 251-yard effort to his credit in a dominant showing against Oakland.
It's simple: If the Buccaneers want to make the playoffs, they must keep handing the ball to Martin. He's so valuable to everything the offense wants to do. It's no coincidence that the offense hit its stride after the first four weeks once he began to get in gear.
Martin's success makes everything easier for quarterback Josh Freeman, and is critical in terms of ball control. When Martin helps the Bucs win the time-of-possession battle, it keeps that horrendous Tampa Bay pass defense off the field.
Martin is hugely important to the success of this team and has done a superb job all year. Now it's up to the Bucs to continue giving him the ball and letting him work his magic.
The Buccaneers simply need to play better as a team to make a run to the playoffs.
In the last two weeks, the Buccaneers have simply been outplayed. The Falcons and Broncos didn't win big on the scoreboard or in any particular offensive or defensive category, but they executed better and were more disciplined.
When a hot team goes on a losing streak, it can usually be chalked up to turnovers. The Bucs only committed one turnover in the last two weeks (albeit one that was returned for a touchdown).
So what is the reason for their sudden slide?
The reason is that they simply haven't executed as well as they should have. A drop here, a missed third down conversion there; little things haven't been going their way as they usually do. What it ultimately seems to show is that while this team is talented and can beat anyone, there is a very small margin for error when it comes to winning football games.
The Bucs just need to get back to what they were doing in the four games previous, and that means getting back to basics. They must execute the play calls and play harder than the opposition. They must find balance in the running and passing game and continue to control the clock.
Only then will they find their way into the playoffs.
Football is a team sport, but the Bucaneers' hopes rest solely on Josh Freeman's shoulders.
One of the best stories of the year has been Josh Freeman. His magical 2010 season gave way to a miserable 2011 campaign, but he has bounced back in a big way and has 3,003 yards, 23 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. His 92.1 quarterback rating is superb and he has been generally excellent all season.
There's no way to slight what Freeman has done, but that doesn't mean he can't do better. Actually, he has to be better. It's not necessarily his fault that the Bucs have holes on the roster, but it's ultimately up to him to do his best to mask the team's deficiencies.
It's a lot to ask of a young quarterback but in this day and age in the NFL, it's almost expected.
It may not be fair, but this team's playoff hopes are squarely in Josh Freeman's hands. If he plays poorly, they won't make it. If he plays well they still might not even make it. He'll have to play spectacularly, and only then will the Bucs have a real shot at making a playoff run.