TAMPA, Fla. -- Once upon a time -- as in any time before Sunday -- the talk in these parts was about if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the playoffs. Times have changed. Fact is, the Bucs should make the playoffs.
Look at their schedule. If the Bucs simply do what they should do, they will be in the playoffs.
But guess what? The Bucs are now 6-3. Look at their remaining schedule. In San Francisco, Washington, Detroit and Seattle, the Bucs have four opponents that aren’t much better than the Panthers. They’ve also got games with Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans. Pull off a surprise in one of those and the Bucs could even end up with an NFC South title or at least be above the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.
“We’ll get better and better as the process of the season goes on,’’ Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said.
They might because they already have improved more than anyone could have imagined in doubling their win total from last season. But just for the moment, let’s say the Bucs go 4-3 the rest of the way and let’s also say the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints do what they’re supposed to do.
There could be a few variables from the NFC East and NFC North. But let’s forget variables for now. If the Bucs do what they should do, they’re 10-6, and that should get them into the playoffs and could give the NFC South three teams in the postseason.
You couldn't judge it from the crowd because Raymond James Stadium was far from sold out again. But some people are starting to believe.
“We feel as a whole in this locker room that there’s unfinished business,’’ said veteran center Jeff Faine.
There was some evidence of that on the field as Carolina’s 16 points basically represented an offensive explosion for the Panthers, fourth-string running back Mike Goodson rushed for 100 yards and the Bucs committed 10 penalties for 80 yards.
Keep in mind, though, Tampa Bay started seven rookies Sunday, some by choice and some because of injuries.
“We like to say it’s the non-blink factor,’’ Morris said. “All these guys have the ability to go out and contribute.’’
The Bucs didn’t do much blinking as rookie Arrelious Benn caught a touchdown pass for the second straight game and rookie running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown. All that came a week after the Bucs lost an emotional and physical game to Atlanta in the final minutes.
Pretenders blink after a loss like the one in Atlanta. Contenders do what the Bucs did against the Panthers.
As they’ve done all season, the Bucs simply relied on second-year quarterback Josh Freeman and hoped a few other guys stepped up. Freeman, who seems to get better each week, turned in a nearly flawless performance. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and had a 134.2 passer rating. He also found tight end Kellen Winslow in the end zone for the first time this season.
“When we took over this program, [general manager] Mark Dominik and I sat down together and said we know it’s a lot easier to win with a quarterback,'' Morris said. "It wasn’t a popular decision at the time to go against our defensive town, but it’s a lot more fun to win like this with a quarterback. And it’s a lot easier to win when you have a quarterback of this caliber that can go out there and get the ball to all these weapons.’’
There now is no doubt drafting Freeman last year was the right call. And it sure looks like the Bucs made the right calls in the offseason to set him up with a good, although extremely young, receiving corps. For the first time in franchise history, the Bucs are a team that can win with the quarterback after generations of playing great defense and asking the quarterback to be a game manager.
“I keep saying it, but it is fun to watch,’’ Morris said.
Morris was talking about watching the emergence of guys like Freeman, Benn, Blount and rookie receiver Mike Williams. He’s right. These Buccaneers could be the most exciting offense Tampa Bay has seen since the days when Steve Spurrier was calling the plays for the Bandits of the United States Football League.
It’s kind of sad, though, that much of Tampa Bay isn’t seeing it in person or live on television. Last year’s 3-13 record, the economy and Florida’s transient population often are cited as reasons the Bucs haven’t had a sellout this season after selling out every previous home game since Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998.
According to the Bucs, Sunday’s paid attendance was 44,264, and the game was blacked out on television in the Tampa Bay market. The sudden winning hasn’t caused attendance to jump -- yet.
Intentionally or not, the Bucs might have pulled off a marketing coup last week when they announced 2011 ticket prices would either stay the same or drop (depending on the location) and offered a 10-month payment plan.
Gee, Christmas is coming and maybe more than a few stockings will be stuffed with season tickets. Much like it’s easier to win with a quarterback, it’s easier to sell tickets when you’ve got a serious playoff contender with lots of upside for the future. Even though the Bucs are probably another offseason away from having the talent to go deep in the playoffs, they should at least get there, if they just do what they’re supposed to do.
“We have the skill level to get things done and take care of business,’’ Faine said. “It’s going to be competitive all the way down to the end.
“And it’s definitely going to be a good race.’’