With Tampa Bay's race half over, NFL history suggests the Buccaneers sport a very good chance to reach January's finish line as an improbable playoff team.
The league's youngest club stands at 5-2 following Sunday's 38-35 victory at Arizona, a thrilling shootout win that pulled the Bucs into a tie with the idle Falcons and Giants for the best record in the NFC.
Since the 2002 realignment into eight four-team divisions, 31 of the 46 clubs that opened at 5-2 qualified for postseason play. That 67 percent success rate reinforces the mantra of Coach Raheem Morris, who said the Bucs are focused on accumulating 10 wins.
"It's a race to 10," Morris repeated Monday. "Ten wins usually provides you with a great opportunity to qualify for the playoffs. You don't go out there and say you're going to the playoffs. I will never talk like that. We're not interested in giving anybody bulletin-board clippings, but if that's how they take it ..."A week after proclaiming the Bucs as the NFC's best team, Morris is not inclined to retract his remarks.
"It's not trash talking, it's a mentality," Morris said. "It's mentality before reality. If you don't believe you can win, you probably won't. I believe in my team and my team believes in us as an organization."
The Falcons, who face the Bucs Sunday at the Georgia Dome, have already heard Morris loud and clear.
"Saying you're the best, not one of the best, that's a bold statement," said linebacker Mike Peterson.
Safety William Moore is using the remarks as added motivation for a midseason NFC South showdown.
"You've got to back that up when you say stuff like that," said Moore, who leads the Falcons with three interceptions. "We are definitely looking forward to the show."
Tampa Bay's stunning rise from a 3-13 club to playoff contender is hardly unprecedented in the NFL. The 2008 Dolphins went 11-5 and edged New England for the AFC East crown, one year after going 1-15.
"The Bucs are legit," ESPN's Sal Paolantonio said. "To win in the NFL, you need superior head coaching and a quarterback with a superior skill set. The Bucs have that. Both Raheem Morris and Josh Freeman are leaders. The NFC is wide open, but I can't see both wild cards coming out of the South. If they can steal this one in the Georgia Dome, look out."
Tampa Bay's playoff push apparently won't include Randy Moss, the prolific 33-year-old wide receiver unexpectedly waived by the Vikings on Monday.
"He's a great player in this league who is available, but we have six young, dynamic wideouts we're building for the future," Morris said. "We love what we've got. We probably won't require Randy Moss' services right now. I think he's one of the best wideouts that's ever played the game."
With a strong finish, the Bucs could capitalize on a watered-down NFC to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 club that lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in the opening round.
The Cowboys and Vikings are a combined 3-11, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia appear mediocre and Tampa Bay already has beaten Arizona and St. Louis.
The Bucs boast a 3-1 mark within the conference, a key potential playoff tiebreaker, and their remaining opponents have a combined .500 record (33-33).
"We find ways to win every single football game that we have won this year," said 35-year-old cornerback Ronde Barber, one of only three Bucs older than 30. "At the end of the day, we are what our record says we are."