TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Thanks to the steady progress of Jameis Winston, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back in the thick of the race for a playoff berth.
The team’s 19-17 road upset of the Kansas City Chiefs lifted the Bucs (5-5) back to .500, one game behind the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons with six weeks remaining in the regular season.
Tampa Bay hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007. Sunday’s victory was a confidence booster heading into a stretch run that’ll feature home games against Seattle, New Orleans and Carolina and road tests against San Diego, Dallas and the Saints.
“We’re just jelling, coming together one game at a time,” safety Bradley McDougald said.
Winston played one of the best games of his young career, topping 300 yards passing in consecutive games for the first time and not throwing an interception.
The Bucs converted 68.7 percent of their third-down opportunities, with the second-year quarterback going 12 of 14 for 133 yards and one touchdown on third downs.
The defense has played better in victories over Chicago and Kansas City the past two weeks after allowing 1,087 yards, including 857 passing, during losses to Oakland and Atlanta within a five-day span.
“Every week is a different week,” said safety Chris Conte, who returned an interception for a touchdown against the Bears.
He then earned a game ball against the Chiefs with an end zone interception that cost Kansas City — trailing 12-10 at the time — a chance to take a fourth-quarter lead.
“You know we’ve got another big challenge next week. We’ve just got to keep on working,” Conte added, looking ahead to the Seahawks (7-2-1) on Sunday.
“Whenever you win, it’s huge. I think we played a relatively clean game on defense, with the exception of a couple of big plays. We’re getting better each week.”
Winston completed third-down throws to six receivers, including Alan Cross, an undrafted rookie tight end who had one career reception before scoring Tampa Bay’s only TD on a 3-yard catch in the fourth quarter.
“We talk about role playing all the time, play your role, understand your role can change at any second,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “These last two games, we’ve been doing a really good job as a football team of playing our roles. The coaches putting them in positions to play them, some guys’ roles have expanded, some guys have diminished roles.”
Receiver Cecil Shorts III is one of the players who has seen his role grow as the season progresses. The sixth-year pro didn’t sign with Tampa Bay until the week of the opener, and he had his most productive game since arriving with five receptions for 62 yards against the Chiefs.
“Good teams find ways to win in November and December. I think we’re hitting our stride at the right time,” Shorts said. “We’re finally getting our timing down. We’re executing very well on third down. We got Doug (Martin) back at a crucial time of the year. Things are looking good for us.”
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