When an NFL season begins, every team "controls its own destiny." If you win every game, you will be the champion, QED.
At some point late in each season, this becomes a talisman, as this particular team or that particular team is in position to – let's give it an acronym – CITD. That's where we are at the moment in the NFC South, with the 6-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinging to a slim lead over the 5-8 Atlanta Falcons and the 5-8 Carolina Panthers. It is true that Carolina controls its own destiny in that if it wins its last four games it will take the NFC South title. Of course, that's also true of the Buccaneers. The crux, of course, is a Week 17 Bucs-Panthers meeting in Tampa. There can be only one.
Atlanta doesn't get the CITD label because, technically, even if it wins its last four games it still wouldn't win the division title if the Panthers do the same. That's because the two teams split their season series and Carolina would end up with a better division record, which is the second tie-breaker after head-to-head results.
But the key thing to recognize here is that the Buccaneers play the Panthers, as mentioned, in Week 17 and then the Falcons in Week 18. The whole scenario seems to be leading towards a lot of final-weekend drama.
Which got me thinking.
The NFC South was formed in 2002 when the NFL expanded to 32 teams and reorganized into eight more geographically-accurate four-team divisions. The Buccaneers made the trek down from the frigid NFC North to join Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans in a more humid NFC South. The Buccaneers welcomed their new neighbors by going 12-4 and winning Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of that first NFC South campaign (though they did lose twice to the Saints).
In that 2002 season, the Buccaneers clinched the division in Week 16, then went on to earn a first-round bye in the season finale against the Bears in Champaign, Illinois. That Week 17 win proved to be crucial to the Bucs' title hopes, but they did go into the weekend knowing they had the division in hand. That's a good place to be in, but how common is it?
Actually, it's pretty common. The NFC South has been contested for 20 years and by my research only six times has it come down to the final weekend. Only once has that involved the Buccaneers. Here are the details:
In 2005, the Buccaneers secured an enormous Week 16 win over the Atlanta Falcons in overtime at Raymond James Stadium. Edell Shepherd fumbled the opening kickoff in the extra period to set up a 28-yard field goal by Todd Peterson but Dewayne White blocked it and the Bucs would go on to win in the waning moments of overtime on a Matt Bryan 41-yard field goal. The Bucs and Panthers were both 10-5 at that point, but the Bucs had a better division record and just had to beat the 3-12 Saints to clinch the South. They took care of business, 20-13. The whole thing was pretty complicated heading into the final weekend.
In 2008, the Panthers and Saints were both 11-4 heading into the final weekend, but Carolina had topped the Saints earlier that year in Charlotte. The Panthers had a shot to clinch in Week 16 but lost to the Giants in New York, 34-28. That set up a showdown in New Orleans in Week 17 and the Panthers sprinted out to a 30-10 lead. Drew Brees rallied the home team to a 31-30 lead but John Kasay won it for Carolina, 33-31, with a 42-yard field goal.
The Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers were all pretty good in 2010, all finishing with double-digit wins. However, the Buccaneers knew the tiebreakers were against them heading into Week 17, even though they would still be involved in the division end game. Atlanta had a one-game lead on New Orleans but due to potential tiebreaker advantages, the Saints would still win the division if they beat the Bucs and the Falcons somehow loss to a moribund Panthers team. Neither of those things happened, as Tampa Bay won in New Orleans and Atlanta had no problem stomping Carolina.
In 2013, the Panthers and Saints were both 10-4 when they met in Week 16, but even Carolina's 17-13 win in Charlotte didn't clinch the division. The Saints could still take the division in Week 17 of they beat the Bucs and the 4-11 Falcons upset the Panthers in Atlanta. New Orleans easily defeated Tampa Bay but Carolina was able to eke out a 21-20 victory thanks in part to Joe Hawley snapping the ball over Matt Ryan's head near midfield with 30 seconds left.
The 2014 NFC South race was a lot like this year's competition, with Carolina leading the way after 16 weeks at 6-8-1. Both the Saints and Falcons were 6-9, but it was Atlanta that had a shot because it had a home game against the Panthers in Week 17. However, Carolina pounded the Falcons, 34-3, and won the division with a sub-.500 record. New Orleans scored 16 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Bucs' 23-20 in Tampa but finished a half-game out.
In 2017, the Saints beat the Panthers twice but both teams were 11-4 heading into the final weekend. As it turned out, the Saints would back into the playoffs after being upended by the Buccaneers, who scored 18 points in the fourth quarter at Raymond James Stadium to win, 31-24. Chris Godwin caught a 39-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left, the first score of his career. Fortunately for the Saints, the Panthers also lost to a decent Falcons team, 22-10. The two head-to-head wins gave New Orleans the tiebreaker.
Are we headed for a seventh critical final weekend in NFC South annals? Looks quite likely.
Now on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to email@example.com.
The Bucs always seem to move the ball well in their hurry up offense how come they don't use it more often?
- Chuck (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is basically the "why don't they make the whole plane out of the black box material" argument. The Buccaneers have done well when they've used a no-huddle, hurry-up attack, at least anecdotally, so why not make the whole offense out of the hurry-up? In other words, the Buccaneers should bring back the K-Gun offense, with Tom Brady playing the Jim Kelly role.
The K-Gun, which I always assumed was a title based on Kelly but apparently may have been named after dual-threat tight end Keith McKeller instead, was debuted by the Buffalo Bills in a December game in 1990 and then became their primary offense for the next several seasons. Kelly would call his own plays and the Bills would stay in a no-huddle attack for essentially the entire game. They had great success with it thanks to Kelly and such superstars as Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton.
Here's the thing about the K-Gun: It's famous because the Bills are the only team that has ever used the no-huddle consistently for entire games over multiple seasons. Think about that. The NFL is very much a copycat league. If one team tries out something new and it works, it will soon be adopted by the masses. And before long defenses (or offenses if it's a defensive strategy) will adjust and it will be on to the next big thing. It's very cyclical.
Yet no other team has tried to make the no-huddle their full-game primary offense since the early '90s. That's very telling.
The obvious argument against going hurry-up all the time is that if it doesn't work for any significant stretch of the game it's going to be significantly more stress on your defense. As Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said last week, while asking a series of questions along the same lines as Chuck's proposal above:
"When it works, it works. When it [doesn't] work, it kind of puts your defense at a disadvantage because you tend to have more punts. But when it is working and executing at a high level, it's tough on defenses."
In addition, if you are constantly operating in no-huddle, you're not going to be substituting much, if at all. That's actually a potential advantage of the approach, as it also keeps the defense from substituting. It can be stressful on the defense if a drive lasts for a while and the offense keeps pressing the action at a quick pace. However, most NFL coaches have a lot of personnel groupings they want to get involved and wouldn't want to be too limited in their substitutions. Brady alluded to that last week as he argued that the Bucs should be able to go fast and slow and execute both approaches well.
"It's a great tool," he said of the up-tempo attack. "I've done it quite a bit over my career. Everyone likes to do it when it works, and sometimes we've tried it and it hasn't worked. Execution's really important to making it work. I think changing personnel groupings is good, I think tempo is good. There's a lot of different aspects you can use to try to create some softness in the defense. Yeah, it's a good tool for us, for sure. We're trying to score every time we take the field. Whether we go fast or slow, we've just got to execute well. We've got to throw the ball well, we've got to catch it, we've got to block, we've got to run. We've got to do all the things it takes to score points."
Also, when we are judging the effectiveness of the no-huddle hurry-up against other approaches, we have to be aware of the game situations in which it is most often used. This round of questioning to Leftwich and Brady came after Brady successfully led two hurry-up touchdown drives in the last five minutes of a thrilling 17-16 win over the Saints. New Orleans had a 13-point lead with very little time left, and the last thing a defense wants to do in that situation is give up a big play and a quick score. That generally leads to a somewhat "softer" approach that is designed to make the opposition eat up too much of the clock while trying to score. And usually that works. Believe me, Todd Bowles was much maligned by the analysts for punting the ball away with seven minutes left, down by two touchdowns, even though it worked in the end.
If you're running the hurry-up the entire game, you're going to see a lot of different defensive approaches, not just the one designed to kill the clock. We don't know if the Bucs would have as much success in the middle of the second quarter in a tie ballgame with the hurry-up as they have had it in the tight clock situations they've most often gone to it. There's no guarantee the overall success of the offense would be any better than with a conventional approach. I can guarantee you this: Tom Brady will insist that the real issue isn't tempo but execution.
Would we use Deven Thompkins as a wide receiver? He seemd to show great speed after the catch.
- @octaviovillatoro (via Instagram)
I don't think Thompkins will necessarily have a significant role in the offense by the end of this season but he definitely could get some snaps. In fact, Head Coach Todd Bowles said he would on Wednesday.
"Oh, we'll use him," said Bowles. "We have him, we'll use him. He can get in the game and play and it shouldn't be a surprise if he's in the game because he has a good feel for it and he can do some things."
Thompkins has already done the most important thing he needed to do to have a shot at playing on offense: He's earned a helmet on Sunday. After waiving Jaelon Darden last week the Buccaneers turned to the undrafted rookie to handle punt and kickoff returns, and it went quite well in his NFL debut in San Francisco. Thompkins had to be elevated from the practice squad to play in Week 14, and he automatically reverted to that unit to start Week 15, but it seems certain that the Buccaneers will continue to find ways to get him active on game days down the stretch. When asked to single out a bright spot in the Bucs' tough loss to the 49ers, Bowles pointed to Thompkins' performance.
And I agreed with you Octavio. Thompkins did show impressive acceleration and an ability to make multiple cuts at top speed to get through traffic on his seven returns. It would be intriguing to see what he could on, say, a tunnel screen or a jet sweep. There's too many mouths to feed in the Bucs' passing attack to expect Thompkins to get the ball very often; on the other hand, it's an offense that right now could use a little spark.
Anyway, we don't really have to project on whether Thompkins could make plays in the passing game. We saw a lot of it in training camp and the preseason. I specifically remember him putting on a show in Nashville in the joint practices with the Titans. Thompkins put up enormous numbers last season at Utah State but went undrafted, almost surely because he's generously listed at 5-8 and 155 pounds. But he has some serious ups. He routinely caught passes several feet over his head during camp.
In the end, it was an unfamiliarity with the offense that kept him from snagging a spot on the 53-man roster to start the season. As most will surely recall, the Bucs had a seriously tough time trimming the depth chart down at receiver, even while keeping seven of them on the active roster. Thompkins and fellow undrafted rookie Kaylon Geiger were competing for the final spots with the likes of Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman and Tyler Johnson, all of whom already knew the offense. But now that Thompkins has had more than three months on the practice squad to learn the system he could be ready to make a contribution on offense.
"He came very close," said Bowles. "It was tough between him, Geiger, you had Tyler, you had Scotty, you had BP. There were a lot of guys that were close to making the roster at the time. At the time, offensively he just didn't know enough."
Scott, what do you think is the toughest game left on the schedule, and how many of these last four do the Bucs need to win? Thanks!
- Keri from Sarasota (via email to email@example.com)
Well, the win-loss records would seem to indicate that it is clearly the Cincinnati Bengals, who are 9-4. The other three teams left on the schedule top out at five wins. And I think that's fair. The Bengals' offense is legitimately one of the best and most explosive in the league, especially now that Ja'Marr Chase is back from his hip injury. That offense ranks fifth in the NFL while Arizona, Atlanta and Carolina are ranked 20th, 28th and 30th, respectively. Arizona just lost its starting quarterback, Kyler Murray, to a knee injury and Atlanta is switching from Marcus Mariota to rookie third-rounder Desmond Ridder. Carolina's Sam Darnold has played pretty well since getting the starting job back but I wouldn't take him over Joe Burrow.
Given that the Buccaneers have consistently struggled to score points this season, probably don't want to get in a shootout, and Cincy is the most likely of those teams to go on a scoring binge. Cincinnati also has the highest ranked defense of those four teams and has allowed the fewest points at 20.4 per game. The Cardinals, in fact, have allowed the most points in the league at 26.8 per game.
However, the Cincinnati game is, relatively speaking, the least important of the last four on the Bucs' schedule. Don't get me wrong, all four games are very, very important and the Bucs want to win this one as much as the rest of them. Depending on how things go, Tampa Bay may have to win them all to take the NFC South crown. Still, since Cincinnati is an AFC team, a loss to them doesn't hurt the Buccaneers in terms of potential tiebreakers as much as any of the other three would. And it's obvious, of course, that beating Carolina and Atlanta in Weeks 17 and 18 are the two most important tasks so that the Bucs can hold off…well, Carolina and Atlanta.
To feel truly safe, I think the Bucs need to win three of their last four, and in particular need to beat Carolina in Week 17. Yes, the Panthers can win the division by sweeping their last four games, and Atlanta, while not completely in control of its own destiny, would have a good shot at it if they did the same. But if you look at it dispassionately, the Bucs have only won six of their first 13 and the Panthers and Falcons have won five of their first 13. Do we really expect those teams to suddenly rip off a four-game winning streak? None of those teams, in fact, have won more than two in a row all season.
It's likely going to come down to what happens in Weeks 16 and 17. And the Bucs won't be taking either of those teams lightly. Carolina beat them pretty handily in Charlotte in Week Seven and the Falcons mounted a strong fourth-quarter comeback in Week Five before losing to the Bucs in Tampa, 21-15.