Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In the Black (and Blue)

The Bucs are co-leaders of the NFC’s toughest division

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CB Donnie Abraham likes the grueling nature of the NFC Central

Tampa Bay has not had the pleasure of playing the 10-2 St. Louis Rams this year, and they haven't faced the NFC East-leading Washington Redskins (7-5) since the pre-season. Lack of head-to-head competition can make it difficult to compare the Bucs to fellow NFC playoff hopefuls, but by at least one barometer, Tampa Bay could enter the post-season battle-tested and ready.

Using team records in games played against opponents out of their own divisions, the NFC Central clearly comes through as the conference's top division. The five teams of the 'Black-and-Blue' Central Division have a combined record of 21-12 against all other NFL teams, as compared to an 11-17 mark for the NFC East and an 8-22 record for the NFC West. This Central dominance has kept four of the division's five teams in serious playoff contention, as the 8-4 Bucs and detroit Lions are just one up on the 7-5 Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.

That does not mean Buccaneers coaches or players are longing for life in a less competitive division. Head Coach Tony Dungy believes that the every-week competition provided by the NFC Central helps the team's that emerge on top enter the playoffs battle-tested.

"It always helps when you play good teams year in and year out, and week in and week out," said Dungy after Friday's practice. "It gets you ready for the big games in December, which is where we are now. I think it really does help you if you get into the playoffs. We've been saying all along that we thought this would be a good division, that three or four teams could make the playoffs."

Much the same scenario played out in 1997, when Green Bay won the Bucs' division and San Francisco and the New York Giants joined them as division winners. All three Wild Card teams then emerged out of the NFC Central, as Tampa Bay finished 10-6 and the Lions and Vikings each had 9-7 marks. In the first round of the playoffs, theBucs were pitted against a familiar Lions team, and took advantage of the homefield edge to win 20-10. Meanwhile, Minnesota upset the Giants in the Meadowlands. Green Bay then went on to beat the Buccaneers in the divisional round and the 49ers in the NFC Championship game.

Those same four Central teams have a shot to repeat that feat; in fact, that is how the playoffs would stack up if the season ended today. Buccaneer CB Donnie Abraham agrees that such a stacking of good teams is helpful to those squads' playoff chances.

"You get used to all of the competition every week," said Abraham. "There's no really bad teams in our division, so we have to be at the top of our game to win each week. I definitely think that helps your team get ready for the playoffs."

Abraham, in fact, wouldn't want to switch to a weaker division. "I like it the way we have it now" he said. "The competition helps you get mentally prepared as well as physically prepared. It definitely helps."

The Buccaneers have been particularly successful outside of their division, compiling a 6-1 mark so far this season, including six in a row since dropping a bizarre 17-13 decision to the New York Giants on opening day. In fact, since Dungy took over at the Bucs' helm in 1996, Tampa Bay has gone 21-10 against non-NFC Central opponents, including a similar 7-1 mark in the team's playoff season of '97.

The flip side of that competition is that intradivision results become extremely important in breaking playoff ties. After head-to-head records are compared, the next item on the NFL's tiebreaker list between teams in the same division is record against division opponents. Currently, Detroit has the best mark in that category of the four division contenders, with a 4-1 record against Central opponents. Green Bay is strong also at 4-2 while the Bucs are 2-3 and the Vikings are 2-4. However, Tampa Bay has three division games remaining, including this Sunday's game against Detroit and a home contest versus Green Bay on December 26.

Of course, tiebreakers only apply to ties, and both the Buccaneers and Lions have the opportunity to render them unnecessary to their own playoff hopes. After Sunday, either Tampa Bay or Detroit will be alone in first in the NFC's toughest division.

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