The 2017 NFL season is 11 weeks old and each team has already been through its bye week, so league math is pretty simple at this particular point in time. Every team has played exactly 10 games, so all of the winning percentages end in two zeroes and it's very easy to see where you stand in the playoff race.
The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, are at the top of the NFC heap at 9-1, or .900, and they have a four-game lead on the fading and .500 Dallas Cowboys. The Minnesota Vikings (8-2), New Orleans Saints (8-2) and Los Angeles Rams (7-3) are all in first place in their divisions, though the Saints have the 7-3 Carolina Panthers nipping at their heels. The Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks – all 6-4 – are tied for the final NFC playoff spot.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers? They're 4-6, or .400, which means they are two games back of that last playoff spot with six to play. Eventual tiebreakers are too complicated to worry about at this point, although the Buccaneers do have two games looming against the Falcons and one against the Lions, so that will likely take care of any head-to-head considerations.
Two games back with six to play. That's not a great place for a team to be in, but neither is it one devoid of hope. What's helping the Buccaneers at this moment is how they got to 4-6. A painful five-game losing streak is in the past; right now, Tampa Bay is enjoying consecutive victories for the first time in 2017.
"It's changed a little bit," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick of the mood in the Buccaneers' locker room. "[It's] a little more upbeat, but it's still [a] business-like attitude. We know that we've dug ourselves a big hole and there is a long way to go. It's definitely a little more upbeat after a couple of wins – that will do that to you. But, we know we've got a great challenge this week and we've got to put our best game out there."
That challenge is the Falcons this coming Sunday in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Bucs' two wins have come against Miami and the New York Jets, finishing their AFC obligations for the year. The next six games are all against NFC opponents, four are against division opponents and all are against teams ahead of them – some of them only slightly – in the standings. It starts in Atlanta, and another victory would start to make the Bucs' playoff aspirations look realistic.
"It would be a huge boost for us," said wide receiver Mike Evans, one of the Bucs' offensive captains. "It would make us go to three in a row and get more momentum in the season. If you're winning late in the year, that's a good sign."
You can't blame these Buccaneers for believing in the power of momentum and what it could mean for the season's second half. Tampa Bay hit the midway point last season with a 3-5 record and the fresh memory of two very painful losses in a row to Oakland and Atlanta. That's when the season turned and the Buccaneers reeled off five straight victories, including big road wins in Kansas City and San Diego. This year, the record at the halfway point was 2-6 – a bigger hole than last year – but the second half of the season has once again started with a winning streak.
As was the case last year, those consecutive wins have improved the Buccaneers' overall team confidence, which is something that could in turn lead to more improved performances.
"It's much better," said Evans. "It's huge. When you're winning, things feel a lot different. We still have hope for the playoffs. That's our goal. We still have hope; we just have to take it one game at a time. It's just two wins. Obviously, we lost five straight so we're in a hole, but we've just got to take it one win at a time. Anything can happen."
Last year's swing coincided with a dramatic improvement on defense, which was driven by a high rate of turnovers. The Buccaneers played an outstanding defensive game in their 15-10 win over the Jets, though they were irritated to allow a late touchdown to New York. Tampa Bay's defense had an impressive first half in Miami, with four takeaways, but had persistent third-down problems in the second half and coughed up a 20-7 lead before the Bucs rallied for the win. Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith knows this year's improvement can't match that of last season until the defense starts playing a more consistent game.
"The thing that we've got to do as a defense is, we've got to play for 60 minutes and we've got to coach for 60 minutes and we've got to get these guys not having those, 'Uh-ohs,' that we've had," said Smith. "You can't look back and say, 'Here's six plays,' or, 'Here's seven plays.' We've got to say, 'There's no plays,' or, 'There's one play.'"
Smith did appreciate his team's stops on third-and-one and fourth-and-one in a critical series in the fourth quarter last Sunday. At the time, it looked like it could be the game-saving moment during Miami's comeback. As it turned out, the Dolphins scored on their next possession to tie it, but Smith said that the fourth-down stop showed the type of resiliency that can help the team going forward.
Smith certainly doesn't have to worry about his players on defense believing that everything has been solved by a pair of victories.
"How the defense played in the second half was terrible," said Gerald McCoy, another team captain. "We can't be feeling good about what just happened. It's a win and that's the only number that matters, but we are going to play elite teams and compete [against] the top teams in this league [and] we can't allow stuff like that to happen."
In fact, McCoy has a much stricter definition of what a successful second-half-of-the-season turnaround would be for the 2017 Buccaneers. A third straight win in Atlanta would allow the Buccaneers to gain ground on one of their primary playoff contenders, but it would still leave a lot left to accomplish in the five weeks that follow.
"We haven't turned a corner yet," said McCoy. "It's just two wins. We turn a corner if we win out – that's turning the corner. Two wins is taking a couple steps toward the corner. We haven't turned it yet. That's how we feel. We are not on our high horse because we won two games. There is a lot of work to be done. We haven't turned the corner yet. We've got a lot of work to do."