This weekend, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take their 4-3 record to the Superdome, where they will take on the 5-3 New Orleans Saints in yet another battle for first place in the NFC South. Meanwhile, the 4-3 Atlanta Falcons will travel to Indianapolis to face the winless Colts.
In a 17-week NFL season, Week Nine is essentially the halfway point, even if some teams have played eight games already and some only seven. And for the first time since the NFC South was formed in 2002, the division's quartet heads into Week Nine with every team carrying at least three losses and three teams within a half-game of first place.
There have been tight midway-point standings in the division before. In 2005, the Bucs, Falcons and Carolina Panthers were all 5-2 at that point, and Tampa Bay went on to edge Carolina for the division titles. Just last year, the Bucs and Falcons were both 5-2 going into Week Nine, with the Saints just behind at 5-3. Atlanta took the title, New Orleans got a Wild Card berth and the Bucs, though 10-6, just missed out on the postseason due to a fifth-level tiebreaker. Rarely, though, have three South teams in a virtual tie hit the midway point with all three experiencing such ups-and-downs.
The Bucs have already beaten Atlanta and New Orleans but took their lumps in San Francisco and didn't play up to expectations in London against the Chicago Bears. The Saints went from a 62-7 thrashing of the Colts one week to a shocking 31-21 loss to the formerly winless St. Louis Rams the next. The Falcons lost three of their first five but are coming off an impressive win over the formerly-streaking Detroit Lions.
Of course, how each team got to this midway point will soon be rendered irrelevant. It's any team's race to win at this point, and there's no telling which one – or ones – will get hot down the stretch.
"It's okay, because that's what it is," said guard Davin Joseph of the Bucs' 4-3 record. "It is what it is. We've won some important games, especially within our division, and we're proud of that. We've let some slip away with some slow starts, and we're playing around with some different ways of helping us start faster.
"We're in good shape. Sometimes it takes getting slapped in the face to wake up, and we got slapped in the face a couple times. It's okay. You're going to get hit sometimes and that's fine. It's just about how you respond. I think we have the guys in the locker room to get it done."
This year's three-way race – and that's not to count out Carolina, which is 2-6 but has lost only one game by more than a touchdown – has another wrinkle thanks to the schedule-makers. Just three weeks and two games after the Bucs beat the Saints to take over a share of first place in the division, the two teams will meet again for their seasonal rematch. The only other time the Buccaneers have played both of their games against one NFC South opponent in the span of three outings was in the first year of the division, 2002. The Bucs defeated Carolina twice, sandwiched around a win over Minnesota, en route to the division title and a Super Bowl championship.
It's strange to think that the Bucs and Saints could be battling it out down to the final weeks for the NFC South title, but their entire head-to-head series will be over by the first week of November. Having the two games so close to each other means both teams will still have their previous film study and game planning fresh in their minds for the rematch.
"It's tough," said center Jeff Faine. "It's tough for there to be much change. I think there will be some wrinkles, some small wrinkles there for them to change a little bit, but it's the same players. These guys, they've got a good defensive line. It's a quality defense and they give us a great look. Gregg Williams is a very, very good defensive innovator. He brings blitzes from all over the place. It would be huge to be able to play them so close together, some stuff still fresh on our minds, and hopefully we'll be able to utilize that as an advantage. But we still expect to see something new."
Tampa Bay's defense might arguably have a more difficult test in the near back-to-back games with this division opponent, because the Saints' offense has so many different ways it can attack the opposition. Drew Brees and company could easily have a game plan that looks nothing like what they brought to Raymond James Stadium a few weeks ago.
"Even when I was in college, I always taught that playing the same team twice was hard because they change up things that you know about them," said defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. "But I think Coach Rah [Morris] has a great game plan for us defensively and our offense is going to do everything in its power to get it going. Hopefully we can play Buccaneer football and get it done. On any given Sunday, any team can go down, so we've just got to prepare and be ready to play."
Added fellow rookie Mason Foster, the team's starting middle linebacker: "It's a big game, playing the Saints. They're going to come with everything they've got. We're going to try to sweep them, but it's always tough when you play the same team twice."
The Saints will have the home field advantage this time around, but perhaps the Buccaneers have an edge of their own thanks to the schedule. Tampa Bay is coming off a re-invigorating bye week that helped get a lot of injured players back into the mix. The team has used those bye weeks well in recent years. In fact, the Bucs have won their last four post-bye week games, dating back to 2007, and two of those four came after they lost going into the week off.
Perhaps that week of recharging is just what the Bucs needed as they are about to embark on a second-half playoff race that could be the wildest the NFC South has ever seen.
"The bye came at a good time," said Faine. "Obviously, we had a bad taste in our mouth in London. For us to be able to get away, get refreshed and get a restart about halfway through the season is a good advantage for us, to have this bye at this time. Hopefully it will help us finish off this season the right way. It's going to be a tight race going down to the very end in this division, so I'm looking for their best shot this weekend."