By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — The improved Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t want to get ahead of themselves.
With five wins in the past the six weeks, the Bucs (6-4) not only have turned their season around but climbed back into playoff contention following a 1-3 start.
Sunday’s 27-21 overtime victory over NFC South rival Carolina was the fourth straight for Tampa Bay. However, first-year coach Greg Schiano and his players are resisting any temptation they might have to talk about revived postseason hopes.
Instead, the Bucs continue to follow Schiano’s lead in referring to each week as an individual season and stressing they must focus on the present — rather than past or future games — to have a chance to be successful.
Nevertheless, there’s no question the team’s belief is growing by the victory.
“The confidence has been there. We just have to continue to go out and do our job and play for what we’ve worked so hard for,” five-time Pro Bowl selection Ronde Barber said. “Coach Schiano puts a lot of emphasis on the things that we do right every single day and it will pay off for us at the end.”
The latest win was especially gratifying. The Bucs overcame three turnovers, numerous other mistakes and Josh Freeman’s worst performance in over a month to wipe out an 11-point deficit in the final six minutes of regulation. They then drove 80 yards on the first possession of overtime to win on Freeman’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark.
In leading the 10th fourth-quarter or OT comeback victory of his career, Freeman completed 13 of 21 passes for 152 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter and overtime. Rookie Doug Martin gained 48 of his 138 yards rushing in OT, finishing with an even 1,000 yards rushing for the season.
Despite being intercepted twice and having one of the picks returned for a touchdown, Freeman has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the past six games.
After throwing a 24-yard pass to Vincent Jackson to trim Carolina’s lead to 21-19 with 12 seconds remaining in regulation, the fourth-year pro connected with the team’s leading receiver for a 2-point conversion that sent the game into overtime.
Clark, who signed with the Bucs as a free agent last winter after spending the first nine seasons of his career with Indianapolis, wasn’t surprised Freeman shrugged off a rough three quarters.
Freeman directed a pair of fourth-quarter rallies as a rookie in 2009, five more in his first full season as a starter in 2010, and two last year.
“I always knew he was a guy with great composure and great confidence, and you have to have that as a quarterback in this league. I think he does a great job of showing that. … Just staying cool and calm in the situation and making the big plays,” Clark said. “He made some big big-time throws. That’s what we’re going to need, and it’s a credit to his ability and his focus when the game’s on the line.”
Even while the Bucs were getting off to a slow start, losing to the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins after opening the season with another six-point win over the Panthers, Tampa Bay players raved about the way Schiano prepares for every possible situation. Some cited the coach’s situational preparation and attention to detail in practice for helping Sunday at Carolina.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said last Wednesday, during the first practice in preparation for the Panthers, Schiano “mentioned our overtime procedures.”
“It’s crazy,” McCoy recalled, “and then we had to go out and do it. It worked out for us.”
It’s just another indication how players have bought into Schiano’s plan to turn around a team that won four games under Raheem Morris in 2011, ending the season on a 10-game losing streak.
“That’s everything to us. We think that it kind of goes back to the philosophy of concerning yourself with the things you can control, and preparation is something you can control. We try to out-prepare ourselves every week. What can we do just a little bit better than the week before, thus learning and getting better every week?” Schiano said.
“What we have in the NFL is a great opportunity to have all these game tapes instantly, all these TV copies instantly, so we scour the league and try to find situations that could apply. You can’t possibly practice everything on the practice field, so you try to use technology as well as the situations we do practice. But these guys are into it. That’s the big thing.”
The next test for the surging Bucs is Sunday at home against Atlanta (9-1), which shares the NFL’s best record. They travel to Denver the following week to face another first-place team.
Count on Schiano to keep pushing his one-season-at-a-time mantra.
“They’re very aware, just like anyone is very aware of what’s at stake and what could potentially be. That one-week season as you call it, that to me is more than just a rhetoric. That is truly what we’re about,” the coach said.
“You’re competing with yourself. There’s another team there because otherwise it doesn’t count as a win or a loss, but you’re competing with yourself because you can’t control them. What we can control is what happens out there on the practice field, in the meeting room, how we prepare. That’s everything to us.”