The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the first half of the season with a 3-5 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:
First-half rewind: No one expected the Bucs to start the season 2-1 with upsets against the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles, and a narrow loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football in Week 3. Nor did anyone expect backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 1,793 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions, completing 66.3 percent of his passes. Fitzmagic's stellar playmaking early on masked the Bucs' defensive deficiencies until a humiliating Week 4 loss at the Chicago Bears. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith was fired two weeks later. Starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who sat out the first three games because of suspension, struggled in his return, throwing eight interceptions in three starts. It prompted coach Dirk Koetter to go back to Fitzpatrick, creating a whirlwind of speculation about Winston's future -- a future that is tied to that of Koetter and general manager Jason Licht. Grade: Below average
What needs the most improvement? Defense and special teams. The Bucs are last in the NFL with a minus-15 turnover margin; opponents have scored 52 points off those turnovers. The defense has not been able to pressure opposing quarterbacks and cover downfield, and struggled against teams using pre-snap motions. The defense overall has been a huge disappointment considering the Bucs invested heavily in both the draft and free agency. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro is struggling with consistency. He has missed only two field goal attempts this season, but two of the Bucs' losses have been by three points, and he's gone 23-of-27 on extra point attempts (85.2 percent) -- 34th in the league among kickers with five or more starts this season.
MVP: Can a backup quarterback win it? Fitzpatrick is certainly deserving of it, as he became the first NFL quarterback to throw for 400 yards in three consecutive games and has led the Bucs to a top-ranked passing attack. He stepped in for Winston against the Bengals and threw two touchdowns, tying the game at 34 before the Bengals won with a last-second field goal. After a rough start against the Panthers, he rallied the Bucs back from a 35-7 deficit, accounting for all the Bucs' points with four touchdown passes. "He inspires a lot of confidence in everyone," tight end Cameron Brate said.
Biggest surprise: Winston's regression. The 2015 first-round pick closed out 2017 playing some of the best football of his career. Then this preseason, he threw three touchdowns, no interceptions and completed 73 percent of his passes. Koetter said at the time, "I don't think anybody in their right mind would say that wasn't an A performance on his part." Fast-forward to midseason, and Winston is struggling to see the field, his mechanics are off and he is forcing throws he shouldn't be making.
Hurdle to overcome: The NFC South. The playoffs aren't impossible, but the 7-1 Saints and 6-2 Panthers are running away with the division. The Bucs would need the type of finish they had in 2016 -- when they went 6-2 down the stretch -- and some outside help not only to make the playoffs but to finish with a winning season. The one place they can gain some ground is during the month of December, when they play host to the Panthers, Saints and Falcons to close out the season.