The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the playoff sleeper no one is talking about

Remember when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were blown out by the Atlanta Falcons a few weeks back on Thursday night football?

It would have been really easy to write off the Bucs then. The defense wasn’t good enough, the offense wasn’t dynamic enough, and even in one of the worst divisions in football it was pretty obvious to all observers that the Bucs weren’t good enough to compete.

Things have changed over the last three weeks. Tampa Bay has won three in a row, following a 14-5 win over Seattle on Sunday, and now sits one game behind the Falcons in the NFC South and half a game out of a wild-card spot at 6-5.

Believe it or not, the Buccaneers are in this thing.

What’s changed in Tampa Bay?

Well, the return of running back Doug Martin has brought some balance to the offense, and a second-half surge has taken hold on defense.

Martin had a dangerous fumble in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, but he ran for 87 yards on 23 carries. The production wasn’t great, but his threat in the backfield has kept defenses honest since his return three weeks ago.

And the Bucs defense — a talented but enigmatic group — has turned it on in the last three games. It’s a team effort, of course, but each week a different unit stands out.

When the Bucs beat the Bears to start their win streak, it was the defensive line, led by William Gholston and Robert Ayers that dominated, registering 10 hurries in the blowout victory.

Against the Chiefs in Week 11, it was the Bucs secondary that looked great — rookie Vernon Hargreaves had the finest game of his young, promising career and Chris Conte was everywhere.

Sunday, it was the uber-talented but highly mercurial Lavonte David who was the best player on the field for the Bucs defense. He earned a 94 rating from Pro Football Focus in the contest.

The Bucs defense has always been talented enough to be one of the best units in the NFL, but whether it was defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s new scheme or just erratic play, Tampa Bay has been up and down all year.

It’s hard to say that the recent run — 10.6 points per game allowed in the last three games — will stick. Not even the Buccaneers can say if they’ve turned a corner. But the threat that this defense could be this good every week and this offense, with Jameis Winston – who has been really good in November — and Mike Evans, who is separating as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, is only getting better should strike fear into every team in the league down the stretch.

The Bucs are in this thing, so long as they want to be.