Having already matched their win total from the past two seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear poised to accomplish more.
Though they'll be without one of their top defenders for the rest of the regular season, the surging Buccaneers can move over .500 for the first time in three years by sending the visiting New Orleans Saints to their first five-game losing streak in 10 seasons Sunday.
A four-win team in 2013 that followed with two fewer victories last season, Tampa Bay (6-6) wasn't expected to be much of a factor in 2015. However, quarterback Jameis Winston continues to make strides, running back Doug Martin has revived his career and a defense that was mostly responsible for allowing an average of 28.9 points in the first eight games is giving up 16.8 while the Bucs have won three of four.
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The result is a team that can move above .500 for the first time since November 2012 and sits one game behind Seattle for the final wild-card spot in the NFC.
“We've been saying for a while we're getting better, that we're a good football team,'' coach Lovie Smith said. ''We haven't played our best always, but that's how life is in the NFL.
“We're right in the mix, which is exciting.”
Tampa Bay will try for a second consecutive victory after Winston led a 12-play, 80-yard drive capped with a 6-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Mike Evans with 1:39 remaining in last Sunday's 23-19 victory over reeling Atlanta. It was the third game-winning drive in six weeks for this year's overall No. 1 pick, who was 18 of 27 for 227 yards with an interception and also ran for his fifth TD.
''He just wants to win, whether it's him handing off, or him scrambling, or him throwing a touchdown pass,” offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. “Whatever it takes to win, they're going to do it.''
Second in the NFL with 1,133 rushing yards after totaling 950 the past two seasons, Martin gained 95 and scored Sunday.
William Gholston had two sacks and rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander recorded his third straight 10-tackle game, had a sack and forced a fumble.
However, it was announced this week that Alexander was suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. Alexander, the fourth-round pick who has started every game, is second on the team with 93 tackles, has three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
''We are obviously disappointed to be losing Kwon at this point in the season,” Smith said. “He made an error in judgment earlier this season and he has owned up to that situation.”
Veterans Bruce Carter and Danny Lansanah could both see time in the middle beginning Sunday when Tampa Bay tries to complete its first season sweep of New Orleans (4-8) since 2007. Winston threw a TD and ran for one as the Bucs snapped a seven-game slide to the Saints with a 26-19 victory in Week 2.
In danger of dropping five straight for the first time since losing that many to conclude the 2005 season – the year before Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans – the Saints will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss and a Seattle win at Baltimore on Sunday. The Saints scored 10 fewer points than they totaled in the previous three weeks last Sunday, but still fell 41-38 at home to undefeated Carolina.
Last in the NFL giving up 31.7 points and 425.2 yards per game, the Saints have allowed three opponents to score more than 40 in the last five contests.
''Something is not going right when everybody is not on the same page,” safety Jairus Byrd said. “I can't really tell you how you fix it, but everyone to a man has to know what you're doing.''
New Orleans has yielded 35 touchdown passes, five shy of Denver's league record set in 1963. Cam Newton threw five TDS last Sunday, highlighted by a 15-yard, go-ahead strike to Jerricho Cotchery with 1:05 left.
''It's been going on pretty much all year,'' Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. ''It is what it is. The only thing we can do is come out there, ball out and just change it.''
Though it remains to be seen if the Saints can actually do that, Brees could give them a chance after throwing three TDs against the Panthers. Brees has thrown 15 touchdowns but seven interceptions in the last five contests.
New Orleans has won three straight at Tampa despite Brees throwing two TDs and five INTs in the last two.