Seven weeks to the playoffs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be in better shape. One might say the Bucs are two plays away from being 7-2. If they were 7-2, this would be a totally different article. I'd be writing about how the Bucs are the NFC's third-best team, behind Dallas and Green Bay.
Seven weeks to the playoffs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be in worse shape. If players like RB Earnest Graham and LT Donald Penn had not stepped up after injuries and provided at least adequate play, the Buccaneers could be far worse than their 5-4 record. You must remember that they only beat Tennessee by a field goal and Arizona by a touchdown.
A play here, a play there. That's the nature of the NFC race this year.
Outside of Dallas and Green Bay, the rest of the conference is mediocre, at best. But the Bucs, oddly enough, might still end up with a playoff berth. They may still end up with a division title. Heck, they may end up with that No. 3 playoff berth after all.
Such is the nature of the NFC. The Bucs may be the third-best team after all. Or they may be a pretender.
In seven weeks, we'll know.
One thing is certain — the Buccaneers received a valuable gift besides much-needed rest last weekend during their bye. Losses by New Orleans and Carolina dropped the pair to 4-5 and propelled the Bucs into a one-game lead in the division.
That's only one reason why, with seven games left to play, I consider the Bucs the favorite to win the division. That doesn't sound so bold, given their standing. But I picked New Orleans to win the division in September, and wrote that Tampa Bay would finish 6-10. I could easily stick with the Saints. They have the firepower, a weak schedule and a head-to-head meeting with Tampa Bay at home.
But they won't win the division. Tampa Bay will. And below I've outlined the reasons why:
The remaining schedule
Tampa Bay has the most favorable schedule of the three. They face just one team with a winning record (Washington) and their opponents have a combined record of 25-42, slightly worse than New Orleans (28-35). The Saints, however, face a slightly tougher schedule down the stretch, going up against Arizona, Philadelphia and Chicago (at Solider Field) to end the season. Conversely, the Bucs face Atlanta, San Francisco (at Frisco) and Carolina. The 49ers are so terrible this year that this could be the year the Bucs finally win one out west.
Carolina's schedule is murderous. Their combined opponents are 38-25, including games against Green Bay, Dallas, Jacksonville and Seattle. For that alone, the Panthers face an uphill battle. With 44-year old Vinny Testaverde leading the way, consider the Panthers done by December.
And that makes it a two-horse race.
The division standings
You must look beyond the fact that Tampa Bay has a one-game overall lead over New Orleans and Carolina and look at the divisional record so far. Tampa Bay is 2-0 with four division games remaining. Carolina is 2-2 with two division games remaining. New Orleans is 1-2 with three division games remaining.
What does this mean? Well, to me Tampa Bay actually has two games in hand on the Saints and Panthers, not one. The best the Panthers can finish in the division is 4-2. The best the Saints can finish is 4-2. You must also remember that Tampa Bay has beaten both teams once this year, eliminating the possibility of a head-to-head tiebreaker if it comes to that.
The second tiebreaker is divisional record. The Bucs could certainly finish 2-4 if they lose all four divisional games, rendering this debate pointless. But let's say the Buccaneers defeat the Falcons on Sunday, making them 3-0 in the South. The Panthers and Saints must play each other again in two weeks, which will give one of them three divisional losses. The loser would have three divisional losses, eliminating their chance to win the divisional record tiebreaker.
While I don't think the Buccaneers will run the table in the division, simple attrition will likely eliminate Carolina or New Orleans from legitimate contention in two weeks, leaving that team relying on other factors to make the playoffs.
Tampa Bay has gotten by on fumes the past few weeks, thanks to a myriad of injuries that rocked the team. Twelve different players are on injured reserve, and yet the Bucs are still in the NFC South lead.
Reinforcements are coming. RB Michael Pittman, WR Michael Clayton, LB Quincy Black and DE Patrick Chukwurah ought to be back this week. CB Brian Kelly and TE Alex Smith — who returned from injuries to face Arizona before the bye — have had 10 days to get even healthier. The only player likely to miss more time is DE Greg Spires, who is nursing a calf injury.
That all adds up to the healthiest the Bucs have been in weeks.
Carolina, while fairly healthy, is missing one key component — QB Jake Delhomme. The combination of David Carr, Testaverde and even Matt Moore doesn't add up to one Delhomme. The Panthers have held it together well, but that lack of continuity behind center has derailed their most explosive weapon, WR Steve Smith, and that difficult schedule down the stretch will likely be their undoing.
The injuries in New Orleans, meanwhile, are adding up. DE Charles Grant, DT Brian Young and LB Scott Shanle all missed the loss to St. Louis on Sunday. In addition, RB Reggie Bush and LT Jammal Brown left the game with injuries. Brown's lower left leg is in a protective boot and there's no prognosis for his injury. Bush has his bell rung and should be back this week. The Saints just got C Jeff Faine back after missing nearly three games with a pectoral strain.
The Saints are dealing with the types of nagging injuries the Bucs have dealt with for weeks. They can tell you first-hand how much of a distraction it can be.
Weather isn't much of a concern for either Tampa Bay or New Orleans. The Bucs' only potential bad-weather game is in San Francisco, and New Orleans' only potential bad-weather game is in Chicago on the season's final weekend. But if the division comes down to that final weekend, would you rather be in Tampa Bay or Chicago? Exactly.
The stars have aligned for Tampa Bay in a sense. They received a favor they never should have in New Orleans and Carolina both losing on Sunday. With a one-game lead in the division, a favorable schedule and a nearly-healthy roster, they control their own destiny. The only think that can stand in Tampa Bay's way is, well, itself. If the Buccaneers take care of their business, there will be no need for complicated tiebreaker scenarios.
The Buccaneers have an opportunity, starting Sunday, to take control of the NFC South race and win their second division title in three years. Beating Atlanta on Sunday would send a clear signal to the division that the road to the title goes through Tampa Bay.
For more on the Buccaneers from Scout.com, visit Bucsblitz.com Click here.
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.