TAMPA, Fla. -- With his Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the cusp of the NFC playoff picture, coach Lovie Smith has taken a measured approach to the possibilities ahead.
"We won two games in a row, right?" Smith said Monday. "And we're 5-5. It's kind of the same message each week. The message is: We are in the playoff race. We have been. But our message is about that next opponent. All those other things will take care of themselves."
The Bucs have gone seven consecutive seasons without a postseason appearance, but they're a contender for the last NFC wild-card spot after routing the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons lead the Bucs by one game for the berth.
The fact that Tampa Bay is relevant this late into the season is a change from developments of the recent past. In each of the past two years, the Bucs were 2-8 after 10 games. They haven't held a .500 record or better at this point in the season since they were 6-4 in 2012 on their way to finishing 7-9.
"We talked an awful lot about getting 5-5," Smith said. "Now we have a chance to get over .500, to win three games in a row. That's what we're going to talk about. But as much as anything [we'll talk about] individual improvement."
The Bucs' final six games present opportunity. Up next are the Indianapolis Colts, whose star quarterback, Andrew Luck, is sidelined because of a lacerated kidney and a partial tear of an abdominal muscle. The Falcons (6-4) and Carolina Panthers (10-0) are the only teams currently with winning records on Tampa Bay's schedule the rest of the season, but the Panthers might rest their starters in Week 17 if their seed is determined.
Plenty remains ahead for the Bucs. Still, Smith is focused on the present.
"We didn't play a perfect game," Smith said of the Bucs' win over the Eagles. "As you start watching the video, there are so many things to clean up. But we'll start that process again Wednesday."