When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sat 3-5, critics wondered why in the world they fired Lovie Smith after only one year. But Dirk Koetter, in his first stint as a head coach, has delivered since.
The Bucs, along with the Detroit Lions, are the hottest team in the league with a five-game winning streak. Their eight victories this season include wins over Atlanta, Kansas City and Seattle, and one of their losses was in overtime to Oakland.
The Bucs travel to Arlington to play the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday for a chance to prove even more in what writers in Tampa are calling the team’s biggest game since 2008. That was Jon Gruden’s final season as the Bucs’ coach.
Second-year quarterback Jameis Winston has shown steady improvement and has 23 touchdowns this season. The defense, featuring defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves, has ranked as the best unit in the NFL since Week 10 in points allowed (12.8), takeaways (14, including a league-best 10 interceptions), touchdowns allowed (six) and opposing passer rating (62.5).
The Bucs, though, have only nine offensive touchdowns in the past five games.
Former Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans ranks third in the league in catches (80), fifth in yards (1,100) and 10th in touchdowns (10). But teams have gone out of their way to stop Evans the past two weeks.
The San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints limited Evans to a combined seven catches for 80 yards and no touchdowns.
The Bucs do not have a true No. 2 receiver, allowing teams to plan their defense around stopping No. 13.
The Bucs re-signed Doug Martin to a long-term deal in the off-season after he rushed for 1,402 yards in 2015. That was second only to Adrian Peterson. Martin averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
But Martin, who signed a five-year, $35.75 million deal, has struggled this season, missing six games with a hamstring injury.
Martin gained only 66 yards on 23 carries against the Saints on Sunday. For the season, he has 379 yards on 128 carries. His 2.87 yards per carry is a career-low and lowest among the 33 running backs with 100-plus carries this season.
The Bucs rank only 21st in total defense, but they have proved a different unit the past five games. They have played particularly well in the red zone, giving up only two touchdowns in five goal-to-go situations.
For the season, Tampa Bay has allowed 22 red-zone touchdowns in 37 such situations.