Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht put his job squarely on the line shortly after the 2015 season ended. The Bucs had improved from 2-14 in Coach Lovie Smith's first season to 6-10 in that '15 campaign. Who gets fired when your team improves by four games?
Licht took the gutsy move to dump Smith, he of the career winning record and Super Bowl appearance, for Dirk Koetter, who was Smith's offensive coordinator. Licht liked how much QB Jameis Winston, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick, had worked in Koetter's offense and didn't want to lose Koetter to another head coaching opportunity.
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So far so good for the GM as the Bucs finished 9-7 last year, their first winning season 2010. They were in the playoff hunt right until the end. Winston could be great at times and a bit shaky at others, but you can probably say that of all second-year starters. Winston & Co. have to be better in close games. The Bucs lost by five at home to the Rams (not acceptable), by six in OT at home to Oakland, by six in Dallas and by seven in New Orleans. Convert one of those games into a victory and this team would have been in the postseason for the first time since 2007 when "Chucky" still patrolled the sideline. This does appear to be at team on the rise, similar to Tennessee in the AFC. It all depends on Winston taking the next step to an elite level. Oakland's Derek Carr did exactly that in 2016 in his third year. The Bucs could be the NFC's "Pirates" in 2017.
The Bucs were 5-3 on the road last season (one game better than at home), an excellent 6-2 against the spread and 3-4-1 "over/under." Tampa travels to three playoff teams in 2017: Miami, Atlanta and Green Bay. The home slate looks a bit tougher. Interestingly, the Bucs will face all four active NFL MVPs at least once this season. I project a 3-5 mark away from home. Odds listed for the home team .
Sept. 10 at Dolphins (-1.5, 48): At least the Bucs are just as used to the Florida heat and humidity as Miami. These two used to play all the time in the preseason, but that was never going to happen in 2017 with a Week 1 matchup. It's the second straight year the Bucs open on the road. Key trend: Bucs are 3-7 ATS in past 10 at AFC East teams (lost six straight SU).
Sept. 24 at Vikings (-3): Tampa off what should be a home-opening win over Chicago, and this is one of four indoor games for the Bucs. They have won their last three contests in Minnesota, but this is Tampa's first trip to U.S. Bank Stadium. These teams last played in 2014 and the Vikings won 19-13 in Tampa. Key trend: Bucs 7-3 ATS in past 10 at NFC North teams.
Oct. 15 at Cardinals (-3): Tampa has extra time to prepare for this one after hosting the Patriots on Thursday in Week 5. This likely starts the season-defining stretch for Tampa. Including this one, the Bucs play five of their next seven on the road, and all those away teams have legitimate playoff hopes. This is also the only Bucs road game not scheduled for 1 p.m. ET (4:05). Tampa was torched 40-7 in the desert in Week 2 last year. Winston was picked off four times. Key trend: Bucs 5-5 ATS in past 10 at NFC West teams.
Oct. 22 at Bills (-1.5): Better to visit Buffalo now than in December for the warm-weather Bucs. Oddly, these teams have played 10 games all-time but just once in Buffalo: Sept. 20, 2009, with the Bills winning 33-20. Key trend: Bucs 5-5 ATS in past 10 as a road dog anywhere of 2 points or fewer.
Nov. 5 at Saints (-1.5): Tampa is off a home game vs. Carolina the previous Sunday. The Bucs were all but eliminated from playoff contention on Christmas Eve last season in a 31-24 loss at the Superdome. Winston threw for two scores but had two picks. Key trend: Bucs 5-5 ATS in past 10 as road dog in series.
Nov. 26 at Falcons (-6.5): Tampa comes off its bye week. These two teams are 24-23 all-time and split last season. The Bucs won Week 1 in Atlanta, 31-24. Winston threw for 281 yards and four scores to four different receivers. Key trend: Bucs are 1-3 SU & ATS in past four as at least a 6-point road dog in series.
Dec. 3 at Packers (-7): This is the conclusion of the toughest two-game stretch of the season for the Bucs. Should be their first winter weather game. The Bucs are 1-10 in Green Bay when the temperature is 48 degrees or lower. Key trend: Bucs 6-4 ATS in past 10 as a road dog anywhere of at least 7 points.
Dec. 24 at Panthers (-3): Short week for Tampa after hosting Atlanta on Monday in Week 15. The Bucs swept the Panthers last season for just the fourth time in franchise history, and both games were won by three points or fewer. It was 17-14 in Charlotte in Week 5 on a Monday. Roberto Aguayo kicked a 38-yard field goal as time expired. The Panthers were without Cam Newton. Key trend: Bucs 4-6 ATS in past 10 as road dog of at least 3 points in series.
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