Every week, it seems less like a location. Every week, it seems more like a destination. Every week, they get closer to a reservation.

They are the Tampa Bay Bucs.

And, yes, they belong in the playoffs. You’re darned right they do.

Every week, it seems less like a mirage. It is real now. You can touch it. It is just ahead, a few miles, a couple of turns. It is possible. It is reachable. For a team that has delivered too many broken promises, it is the promised land. And it just beyond that ridge.

With every game, it is easier to believe that they belong. With every week, with every offense that the Tampa Bay Bucs shut down, it is easier to believe that would not be out of place in the post-season. With every takeaway, with every big play, this franchise feels as if it has turned a corner on its existence.

For the Bucs, the latest piece of evidence was Sunday’s 16-11 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Offensively, it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t stacked with highlight plays that you can talk about over the water cooler.

Mike Evans didn’t stand out for the second straight game. Jameis Winston didn’t score a touchdown since his little league days.

But it was a bloody-knuckle win in a game that could have gone either way. Good teams win these kinds of games. They go into Kansas City and win. They are home against Seattle and win. They fly to San Diego and win.

Bucs S Keith Tandy - Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

Bucs S Keith Tandy – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

“Yeah, you think about the playoffs,” said Bucs safety Keith Tandy, who had a game-clinching interception for the second-straight week. “You have to have long-range goals. It’s what football is all about. But we have to stay focused on the task at hand and keep winning.”

What it was filled with were defensive gems. Remember, this was Drew Brees, who had beaten the Bucs 14 times in 21 tries. But Sunday, he led his team to only three field goals. The New Orleans defense chipped in a safety.

Aside from Tandy, Vernon Hargreaves intercepted his first pass of the year. Brent Grimes intercepted his third as a Buccaneer. Tampa Bay’s red zone defense kept standing up.

“Who says they don’t play defense in Tampa Bay,” said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter. “(The defense) has been playing with a lot of confidence. It’s great to see. Some of these guys on defense have been beat up for years.”

More and more, you can see the belief in this defense grow. During this team’s five-game winning streak (the Bucs hadn’t won five in a row since that magical 2002 season), it has allowed only 64 points (counting two safeties) for an average of less than 15 a game. Remember Warren Sapp’s old mantra – give me 17 and we’ll win? This team is doing more with less.

“We talk about it in the huddle,” Tandy said. “Somebody is going to step up and make a play. We don’t know who it’s going to be, but somebody steps up. As a defense, we don’t want to give an inch.”

By now, maybe that belief has hit you, too. Maybe you believe that, with the post-season on the line, someone is going to make a play. A sack. A fumble recovery. An interception. Something.

The truth about Sunday’s game? No, it wasn’t a great offensive performance. Winston had an 82.9 rating, his lowest in weeks. Doug Martin had only 66 yards. Evans had only 42.

But the Bucs won in all the little ways to used to get them beat. Punter Bryan Anger was wonderful again, pinning two punts inside the five. The Saints cost themselves 39 more yards with penalties than the Bucs. And the Saints never reached those pretty red end zones all day.

“Do things right in this defense, there’s plays for everybody,” said tackle Gerald McCoy. “Tandy is a person who does everything right. He’s always in place.”

The worst it got for the Bucs? That was when newcomer Josh Huff let a kickoff bound off his facemask at the 1-yard line, and on the first play of the offensive drive, the Bucs were thrown for a safety. That cut the score to 13-5, and when Anger’s post-safety punt went out of bounds, it gave the Saints the ball at midfield.

And still, the defense refused to bend. In 10 drives by New Orleans, Tampa Bay’s defense forced four punts, three field goals and had three interceptions. Remember, this is the Saints team that scored 49 against the Rams two weeks ago.

Then, at the end, there was Tandy, who is turning into the Mariano Rivera of this team.

It was fourth-and-1, and Tandy recognized the New Orleans formation. Safety Bradley McDougald told Tandy he was going with him, that he had his back. For Tandy, that meant he could guess at the play, and if it was what he thought, he was going to be able to drive on it. It is, after all, one of the Saints’ favorite plays.

“We tried to run it with our scout team,” Tandy said, “but they could never run it right.”

Sure enough, the play developed the way Tandy thought, and he drove on the ball. Interception. Game over.

“When I go in, I want to do my job,” Tandy said. “I don’t want there to be a drop-off.

Said McCoy: “He’s where he’s supposed to be. If it’s making an interception, if it’s making a tackle, he’s where he’s supposed to be.”

Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Simple as it sounds, that’s one of the keys to a football team. Don’t be a hero. Just do your job. Fill your gap. Make the tackle. Cover your man. And so on.

More and more, this team looks like runaway horses, galloping in step as they race through the canyon, picking up speed as they go. They are better than they were two weeks ago, and two weeks ago, they were better than they were two weeks earlier.

Look, by the time the playoffs come around, most of us know the difference between the teams that belong and the teams that don’t. With the teams that belong, there is a fiber, a confidence that separates from the others.

More and more, this team flashes that. More and more, they are a tougher day at the office. Time was, quarterbacks used to relish playing the Bucs, and wide receivers used to imagine how big their numbers might get.

No more. This team has some backbone. This team has some steel.

“We’re confident,” Tandy said. “And a confident team is a dangerous team.”

Dangerous. Now, there’s a word that hasn’t always been used to describe the Bucs.

Again, Atlanta has an easier schedule the rest of the way than the Bucs. Still, aren’t you starting to believe this team can make it?

Aren’t you starting to have faith that it has enough danger to get it to the other side?

Me, too.

No one has won more awards, including two national Associated Press Sports Editors Best Columnist awards and eight top 10 finishes, than the legendary Gary Shelton, former sports columnist of the St. Petersburg Times. Shelton returns to PewterReport.com for his second season of providing post-game commentary on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like no one else can.

Shelton just received his sixth Sportswriter of the Year award for Florida by the NSSA, and no one has seen more big events, including 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics and 11 Final Fours. Shelton still goes into the locker room to obtain his stories.

And no one has made you angrier, or laugh louder, or think harder about what he has written. Simply put, no one has covered Tampa Bay sports like Shelton has. Now you can read Shelton daily on GarySheltonSports.com and follow him on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton

Bucs fans can enjoy Shelton’s weekly post-game column on the Bucs following every Tampa Bay game exclusively on PewterReport.com, and our readers are encouraged to subscribe to GarySheltonSports.com for all of his expert commentary on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays, USF, Florida, Florida State and all of the sports teams and sports figures in the national spotlight.

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About the Author: Gary Shelton

Legendary sports columnist Gary Shelton returns to PewterReport.com for his second season of providing post-game commentary on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like no one else can. No one has won more sports writing awards than Shelton, who has covered Tampa Bay area sports for decades with his unique brand of humor and insight. Bucs fans can Shelton daily on GarySheltonSports.com and follow him on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton
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seat26
5 years ago

Great win. It wasn’t pretty but a lot of unlikely heroes made their mark today. Defense is finding a way to win every week even when our unstoppable offense is stopped. I am not sure we will go to playoffs because our opponents schedules look a lot easier than ours, but I know this season is already a success. We are going to have a winning season, I am almost sure of that, and, Wow. Just wow. How far we have come from last season !!

Naplesfan
5 years ago

Dangerous is right, our defense, anyway.

I am starting to get a little worried that we’re making a habit of non-productive offensive performances since our beat-down of the Bears at the beginning of this 5-game win streak. To beat the Cowboys next Sunday night it’s likely going to take more than 16 points of offense.

I hope Coach Koetter lets Jameis and the boys on offense air it out a little more in next week’s game plan. The ‘Boys are a lot better than the Saints.

Horse
Reply to  Naplesfan
5 years ago

Naplesfan; the Giants did it, why can’t we?

Naplesfan
Reply to  Horse
5 years ago

The difference is the Cowboys were on the road, where the visiting offense is always at a disadvantage with crowd noise. The Cowboys are also a team that has a very good offensive line and running game, as well as a passing game, whereas the Saints are more one-dimensional with Brees’s passing. At Dallas is going to be a bigger challenge. Besides, a lot of folks are not acknowledging that our defense, while very good, still let the Saints down to almost to their end zone, where their receivers dropped two passes that should have been TDs, one of which… Read more »

drdneast
5 years ago

Naplesfan.

Giants 10, Cowgirls 7.

I know I was supposed to be rooting for the Cowgirls last night, but my loathing of the team is such that I just couldn’t do it.

Naplesfan
Reply to  drdneast
5 years ago

That was a road game. The ‘Boys will be loaded for bear playing at home this Sunday night. Though I expect another good if not great defensive performance by the Bucs, we cannot depend upon getting a win by scoring only in the teens.

chetthevette
Reply to  drdneast
5 years ago

Dear drdeast, I myself was very conflicted during the Boys and Giants. I knew I was supposed to root for the Cowboys, but I just could not do it. Loathing is a fantastic word to the way I feel about them.
I hope next week you and I can crow big time after we kick their asses.

macabee
5 years ago

Besides the game clinching interception by Keith Tandy, the Special Teams play by Josh Robinson, Ryan Smith, and Alan Cross at the 1 yard line was a thing of beauty – perfect punt coverage. A Special Teams ballet of precision and grace that could be set to music! Bravo!

jshumaker
5 years ago

I was disappointed with the offense but there is a good chance they were looking ahead to the Dallas game. I know I was. Hopefully the offensive struggles clear up with some guys getting off the injury list. I can’t wait to see what this defense does to Dak. I have been stunned hearing the commentators saying that the Bucs are back to running the Tampa-2 because they are getting pressure with just their front 4. They are putting up the same kind of stats that the Sapp/Brooks/Lynch/Barber defenses were putting up. The only difference this time is that we… Read more »

Naplesfan
Reply to  jshumaker
5 years ago

The commentators were wrong about us playing the “Tampa 2” … they’re just being lazy. Our defense is much more complex than the old Tampa 2, including three deep and a fair amount of man coverage. Mike Smith’s defense is nothing like the old Tampa 2.

Dude
5 years ago

The only thing that worries me about this team going forward is that it appears when they get a lead, the offense plays not to lose. Koetter always seems to get more conservative with each successive possession. Unless their behind, they never take any shots downfield and catch defenses off guard in the later quarters. Or they don’t try to put teams away early. It starts to appear like our opponents defense have made the right adjustments and begin to look like their playing better against us as the game progresses. But it’s our offense that draws back, gets conservative,… Read more »

Naplesfan
Reply to  Dude
5 years ago

Dirk certainly did call a very conservative game last night. Only 26 total pass attempts, and of them only 3 were deep passes, with only 1 connecting for 17 yards (barely “deep”) to Huff. I can understand how NFL coaches tend to be conservative compared to college coachs – they just are – and that when your defense is playing lights out, it’s hard to remain aggressive. Koetter seems to have recognized that and in his post-game comments he was critical of his own playcalling. We really need to see the passing game open up more, with at least 35… Read more »

Horse
Reply to  Dude
5 years ago

Stats must show differently because most teams do the same thing. In other words, we got the lead, let the other team take the chances. I’m not saying you’re wrong because I feel the same way as you; never take your foot off the pedal.

chetthevette
5 years ago

“Every week, it seems less like a mirage”.
That my friends is the way to describe the way I feel about this team.
Gary Shelton can definitely spin a phrase.
GO BUCS