Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Steal an NFC Playoff Spot?

Jameis Winston tore apart the Eagles defense as the Buccaneers got the victory on Sunday. Will their hot play be enough for a playoff spot?

When you take a player first overall in a draft, you hope the breakout game comes sooner rather than later.

For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jameis Winston, Week 11 was perfect timing.

The takeaway from Tampa Bay’s 45-17 win against the Philadelphia Eagles wasn’t just the performance of the quarterback, as impressive as a five touchdown and no interception day was for the rookie. This, on Sunday, was a full team win, which somehow shot the Buccaneers into the ever-growing middle tier of NFC teams vying for a Wild Card spot. 

Tampa Bay entered Week 11 with a 7.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, tied with St. Louis for the sixth highest odds among teams not leading a division heading into Sunday. Considering those six teams are fighting for two spots, the odds were not exactly in Tampa Bay’s favor. But a strange thing happened in Week 11, as all but two of those teams -- Green Bay, which now holds a division lead, and Seattle -- lost, vaulting Tampa Bay up in the standings. It might be just enough to give this team some hope of sneaking into an unexpected playoff hunt for the rest of the season.

Develop and Breakout

For most of the season, the Eagles have been viewed as a dysfunctional team struggling to find the balance between scheme and players’ strengths. That’s come from the offensive side of the ball, and that view has clouded how that defense has played for the majority of the season. Per our Net Expected Points metric (NEP), the Eagles entered Week 11 as the fifth best defense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play. NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.

Tampa went against that defense and put up 38 points -- the last Buccaneers score was a 20-yard pick-six by Lavonte David. Winston was impressive and, for most of the day, Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were virtually uncoverable against the Philadelphia secondary. Per the metrics from numberFire Live, Winston had 21.48 Passing NEP in this game, surpassing his total Passing NEP from the season of 13.82. That number entering the week ranked 24th among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, one place behind injured Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford.

Winston’s playing style is always going to be prone to some interceptions, but over the past few weeks, he’s been making some better decisions, which has led to zero interceptions in five of his past six games. Of course there’s some luck in there, too -- there’s always some luck with avoiding interceptions while not playing like Alex Smith. His touchdown pass to Charles Sims late in the second quarter could have been an interception, for instance, much more easily than the effort it took to make it a touchdown. But on the whole, Winston has developed over the past few weeks, and his play has been less of a hinderance than it was early on.

The Buccaneers were also helped out on Sunday with their best performance on the ground, thanks to 235 yards on 27 carries from Doug Martin. Martin, for the majority of last season and this season, had struggled to run the ball consistently. Entering the game against the Eagles, Martin ranked just 41st among 58 running backs with at least 40 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt. He was the second rusher by NEP on Sunday, behind only Thomas Rawls in Seattle, thanks to some better offensive line play than usual that allowed Martin to hit holes with a little more authority than he’s been able to do over the past two seasons.

Keeping the Ship Moving

It’s one thing to beat an Eagles team that was clearly having issues on the field, regardless of how well they had played -- at least defensively -- coming into the game. It’s another to continue winning throughout the rest of the season. We discussed Tampa Bay’s playoff odds heading into the week, but with the losses of Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis and Minnesota, Tampa finds itself just outside the playoff picture at 5-5, tied with Seattle in seventh place in the conference.

Tampa won’t become a favorite for the playoffs, but the path does look a little easier after Week 11. The Buccaneers only play two teams from the top-15 of nERD until Week 17, the toughest of which comes against the Carolina Panthers in Week 17. And there’s a high possibility the Panthers have very little to play for in that matchup. 

The next best team, by our pre-Week 11 rankings, is the Atlanta Falcons, who have struggled mightily over the past few weeks and lost 23-20 in overtime against Tampa in Week 8. The Buccaneers also get that Week 13 matchup at home. The toughest defense the Buccaneers will face comes from St. Louis in Week 15 on a Thursday night, but the Rams also posses the worst offense in the league and looked even worse against Baltimore on Sunday.

Keeping the offensive train moving might not be a surprise for this Buccaneers team, even as they had ranked 25th in Adjusted NEP per play, but the question of this team could continue to be the quality of the defense. The Bucs started the season looking again like a team with an outdated scheme, but like the offense, the play has come together of late. Tampa Bay entered the week with the 19th-ranked defense by Adjusted NEP per play, which places it just slightly below average, but a massive upgrade from last season and earlier this year.

As it stands, our numbers give the Buccaneers a 20.16% chance to make the playoffs.

At this point, a playoff spot would be a welcome surprise for those around the franchise, but even if the team falls short, there’s a pretty optimistic outlook for what this team could become over the next few seasons.