Head Coach Jon Gruden wants to make sure his team's mind is on the Saints and not division standings or tiebreaking scenarios
It's a well-documented if still somewhat astonishing note: After the NFC South's inaugural season in 2002, the division title in each successive year has been won by the team that finished last the season before.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wore the first division crown in 2002, then Carolina pulled off the worst-to-first maneuver in 2003, followed by similar ascensions by Atlanta in '04, Tampa Bay in '05, New Orleans in '06 and the Bucs again in '07.
Thus, it should not really come as a shock that the Falcons are one of the NFL's biggest "surprise" teams in 2008, storming out to a 7-4 mark despite coming off a 2007 campaign that seemed more destructive than most last-place finishes. Atlanta lost its coach, Bobby Petrino, to Arkansas before the season was over, played the whole season in the wake of the Michael Vick scandal and then entrusted the next season to a rookie quarterback. That is not normally the formula for success the following year, but new Head Coach Mike Smith and phenom passer Matt Ryan have — again, we shouldn't be surprised — Atlanta in contention for the NFC South championship.
The only problem for the Falcons is that the rest of the division has decided not to step aside and let the bottoms-up cycle take place.
Atlanta has a good enough record for at least a share of first place in three of the eight NFL divisions, but in the ultra-competitive south they stand third. The Falcons did pull the Panthers back to the pack on Sunday with their 45-28 win over Carolina in the Georgia Dome, but the Bucs and Panthers are still a game up on Atlanta at 8-3 apiece.
There's pressure from below, too. The Saints could make the division four-for-four in teams over .500 by beating the Green Bay Packers on Monday night and moving to 6-5. If they do that, the South could join the AFC East as the only two divisions in football in which every team has a winning record. Philadelphia's recent tie keeps them right at .500 and keeps the NFC East currently out of the discussion.
Speaking of the East, it was that blue-blooded crew of the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants and Redskins that was supposed to, by many pundits' early-season estimations, dominate the NFC playoff field by sending three teams into January. That still could happen — 10-1 New York has a good shot at the first overall seed and the Cowboys and Redskins are both 7-4 — but it's just as likely that the South would rise up and fill both Wild Card openings. The Saints could make all of those teams a little uncomfortable with a win on Monday night.
And the South could do the same for the rest of the conference down the stretch.
"There's a big game tonight in New Orleans between the Packers and Saints, two five-five teams," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "That will be a great game. Both teams have got to have it. I just have great respect for New Orleans. I know what kind of personnel they have. [Head Coach] Sean Payton is a guy I got a lot of respect for. The Panthers are loaded. Defensively they are for real. With Jake Delhomme behind the center, they're a proven winner. You can't deny that Atlanta, with Matt Ryan and Head Coach Mike Smith and Michael Turner, they have made some great acquisitions and the quarterback is dominating the league right now. They're impressive. It's going to be interesting."
Yes, to say the least. And not soon but right now. Having built a three-game winning streak out of the division against Kansas City, Minnesota and Detroit, the Buccaneers are now about to embark on a three-week stretch of all intradivision games. Tampa Bay plays host to the Saints this coming Sunday then will embark on a pair of critical road trips to Carolina and Atlanta.
The Buccaneers, of course, are aiming their sights at just that first game, as all teams try to do during a tense stretch drive.
"We've just got to take it one game at a time," said Gruden. "It's going to be a really difficult game Sunday; we won't look any further than that. Obviously the Saints got us at their place earlier in the year and they're a very talented team. We've got a long way to go yet but I'm really proud of our team for hanging in there."
The same is probably being said at team headquarters in Atlanta, Charlotte and New Orleans, too. The Saints have had the most up-and-down season of the four, as they are still looking for their first pair of consecutive wins (could happen tonight) and almost surely expected to be better than .500 at this point.
But they still have the league's top-ranked overall offense and passing attack, they still score better than all but four teams in the league and, with apologies to the Buffalo Bills, they look like the most dangerous last-place team in the league.
There's simply no one out of it in the NFC South, whether you think the Panthers' explosive rushing attack or the Buccaneers' fourth-ranked defense or the Falcons hidden good-fortune horseshoe of a 2007 fourth-place finish is the biggest difference-maker in the division.
And thus every game in the next five weeks in the NFC South is going to be crucial. That laser-like focus Gruden insists his team will have in the coming days? They're going to need it.
"We'd like to close out this quarter [of the season] with the Saints, if we can, with four in a row in the third quarter," said Gruden. "We have a theme around here: 'They remember what you do in November.' We'd like to close out the month of November with a big home victory against New Orleans and we really won't get too far ahead in the schedule."
Later this week, Buccaneers.com will unveil the "Playoff Watch" feature that, when it appears in November and December, usually means Tampa Bay is having another fine season.
Each week, Playoff Watch takes an in-depth look at the NFC Standings and the Bucs' place in them, observing such issues as tiebreakers, upcoming opponents and strength of schedule.
In the meantime, let's take a really quick peek at how the tiebreakers currently stand just within the NFC South. Gruden wants his players to stay focused solely on the Saints, but we have a little more time for speculation. While the tiebreaker scenarios are likely to change significantly from week to week, here's how they stand right now.
To break a tie within a division, the following comparisons between teams are made, in this order:
1. Head-to-head records.
Right now, the Buccaneers are 1-0 against the Panthers and Falcons and 0-1 against the Saints. The Panthers have split with the Falcons, beaten the Saints and lost to the Buccaneers. This one is essentially meaningless right now, because the various head-to-head wins over the next three weeks are just as likely to determine an outright champion then come into play as a tiebreaker.
2. Division records.
With the same caveat as above, the Buccaneers currently enjoy the lead in this category. They are 2-1 in NFC South play while the Panthers and Falcons are each 2-2 and the Saints are 1-2. However, if the Bucs were to lose to the Saints this coming Sunday, all four teams would have identical division records.
3. Records in common games.
This is where it starts to get interestingâ€¦and very difficult to figure out. This one is almost impossible to predict at the moment, but it's worth noting a few significant decisions against shared teams on the schedules of the four South teams.
For instance, the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers have all beaten the Bears already, with New Orleans playing them in three weeks. The Broncos have already beaten the Bucs, Falcons and Saints and get to go for the sweep against the Panthers in Week 15. Here's a notable difference: The Buccaneers have beaten the Vikings, but Minnesota took down Carolina and New Orleans and gets a crack at the Falcons in Minneapolis in Week 16. Green Bay could have a say in how the South wraps up; they've already lost to the Bucs and Falcons but still have to play the Saints and Panthers.
4. Conference records.
The Bucs currently enjoy a notable edge here. They are 7-2 against NFC teams while the Panthers and Falcons are both 5-3 and the Saints are 2-4. Again, the win over Minnesota appears to be an important one here.
5. Strength of Victory; and 6. Strength of Schedule
Since every team in the NFC South gets to play such win-deprived teams as Detroit, Kansas City and Oakland, the overall strength of schedule between the four clubs shouldn't be huge. However, the Bucs drew Seattle from the NFC West (2-9) while the Panthers had to take on Arizona (7-4), and beat them. This is another one that is too complicated and subject to change to spend much time on in Week 13, but those two aforementioned games and, again, the Bucs win over Minnesota could be factors if these tiebreakers are reached.
The tiebreakers continue on for six more entries, but they are increasingly involved (example: Best net points in common games) and are almost never reached.
Hoping for Reinforcements
Gruden mentioned no new injuries to the Buccaneers' roster during his weekly day-after-the-game press conference, which qualifies as something of an unusual occurrence this season.
Even better, Gruden mentioned the possibility that two injured starters could soon return to action. There is a "chance," he said, that safety Jermaine Phillips and tight end Alex Smith will return on Sunday against the Saints.
Phillips hasn't played since sustaining a forearm fracture against Dallas in Week Eight. Smith suffered an ankle injury the next weekend at Kansas City and has subsequently missed the last two games.
Fortunately, the replacements for those two solid starters have played well during the team's three-game winning streak.
Second-year man Sabby Piscitelli has taken over at strong safety for Phillips and helped the pass defense allow just 137 yards per game over his three weeks in the lineup.
"He's playing well," said Gruden. "He is a big hitter, he has sideline to sideline range, he has got pretty good football aptitude and understanding of our defense now, and this experience has really helped him. To get Jermaine Phillips back is going to be a shot in the arm for us also, but we are really pleased with Sabby and his future looks really bright here."
The Bucs were already using all three of their tight ends extensively before Smith's injury, so John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens have simply seen an uptick in their snaps played. Gilmore has started the last two games and is an accomplished blocker, but it's Jerramy Stevens who has filled the void in the passing game.
And how. Stevens has eight catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in the last two weeks.
"We think he's a heck of a tight end," said Gruden. "He's been in a Super Bowl. He's a very good receiver, very good, and he's improving as a run blocker, which is allowing us to get him on the field more and more. Obviously without Alex the last two weeks his role was expanded. He's stepped up and really earned the right to play a lot more."