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Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 10:12 AM

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have surged into the playoff picture with three straight wins. The Bucs now stand at 6-5, one game in the NFC South and just a half-game back in the wild-card race. If you believe in this surge, there’s money on the table—Tampa is still a healthy 7-2 price to win a division where Atlanta remains the top-heavy (-400) favorite. And in an NFC that could produce postseason surprises, the Bucs are 50-1 to reach the Super Bowl and 125-1 to win it. Just how much is this Tampa team worthy of confidence?

There are good reasons to be skeptical. They’re below average for the season in both points scored and points allowed. The left side of the offensive line is a sieve. After Mike Evans the receiving corps is thin. At least five defensive positions are occupied by seriously subpar NFL players. And one of the better defensive players, tackle Gerald McCoy, is in a walking boot with his status for this coming Sunday in question.

But there’s always a flip side and it starts with the basic reminder that no team available at the kind of prices Vegas is offering on Tampa Bay at this point in the season is going to be without serious flaws. The question is whether the Bucs are peaking at the right time, to the point that season-long statistical data becomes less relevant, and whether they have the right star players to key a special December and January run.

The teams Tampa Bay has beaten on this three-game winning streak give credence to the confident. After blowing out lowly Chicago, the Bucs went on the road to Kansas City as a seven-point dog and won 19-17. Yesterday they were a five-point home underdog to Seattle and won 14-5. And the quality of those wins goes directly to play at the most important spot, as quarterback Jameis Winston comes on strong in his second NFL season.

Winston was 23/33 for 312 yards in the rout of the Bears. At KC, one of the tougher road venues in the league, Winston was 24/39 and made the big plays Alex Smith could not, generating 331 passing yards. Against the Seahawks, Winston showcased some efficiency. He was 21/28 for 220 yards and two early touchdown passes to Evans that set the tone for the game.

The quarterback play tracks the same arc is that of the team overall. Winston’s season-long numbers aren’t pretty. While his 22 touchdown passes will appease Fantasy owners, NFL bettors have had to worry about his below-average performance in yards-per-attempt, completion percentage and interceptions.

But if you can get to the playoffs, it’s about how you’re playing in January, not how you looked in September or October. Winston and Tampa Bay demonstrated they could beat the NFC’s current #2 seed in Seattle. The current #1 seed Dallas has a rookie quarterback and a coach who hasn’t proven he can win big in the playoffs. That’s the formula for a bracket that can open up and a hot young quarterback coming into his own is the formula for an underdog that could shock the system.

 

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