The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have three games left to play in the 2022 regular season and a one-game lead over every other team in the NFC South. What is going to happen from here?
Obviously, it could be anything, given that none of the four teams in the division has yet to show that it can sustain a long winning streak. You will be hearing a lot of talk this week about the possibility of one team or another "running the table" over the last three weeks, but the four clubs in the NFC South have yet to generate a single three-game winning streak this season. The more likely outcome is chaos.
So what is best for the Buccaneers? Well, it's pretty simple. The Carolina Panthers visit Raymond James Stadium in Week 17, and that's the game that matters the most to the entire muddled division race.
According to FiveThirtyEight, if the Buccaneers win that game they will have a 98% chance of winning the division, no matter what else happens over the next three weeks. If the Buccaneers win that game and win either one of their other remaining games – at Arizona this Sunday and at Atlanta in Week 18 – they will clinch the division.
What if the Panthers win that game and complete the season sweep? Well, it ain't great. Based solely on that outcome, the Buccaneers' postseason odds drop from 73% to 40%. However, if the Buccaneers beat Arizona in Week 16 and Atlanta in Week 18, they move back up to a 76% chance of making the playoffs. In that scenario, all Tampa Bay needs is for Carolina to lose in Week 16 against Detroit or Week 18 at New Orleans.
This is probably the strangest ending to the NFC South race that there has been since the division was formed in 2002. The Panthers won the division with a 7-8-1 record in 2014, but all four teams were not in play down the stretch. With all four teams still in contention, we will almost certainly be treated to some drama over the next three weeks.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who is the most underrated player on the team this season?
- @thiccsecsee (via Instagram)
I'd probably go with Jamel Dean.
The big contract that Carlton Davis got in the offseason, and surely would have gotten from some team if not the Buccaneers, was an indication that his reputation as one of the league's better corners had finally caught up with his level of play. I don't believe that has happened for Dean yet. Part of the problem is the relative lack of interceptions, which is the first stat anyone looks at for a cornerback. Davis didn't have a ton of those in his first couple seasons but he did get four in 2020 to lead a Super Bowl team. Dean has seven picks through (almost) four seasons so far, and no more than two in any single campaign (so far, he has two at the moment but is also sidelined by a toe injury).
Dean has arguably been the Bucs' best cornerback this season, but I don't think many fans outside of Tampa are aware of just how well he has played. Those who delve into more advanced statistics are starting to come around, but like Davis before him I think he has turned the corner without many people noticing just yet.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Dean has allowed 325 yards as the nearest defender this season, which ranks fourth among all NFL cornerbacks (minimum of 50 targets). The only three who have allowed fewer are Philadelphia's James Bradberry, the Saints' Alontae Taylor and the Browns' Greg Newsome. Dean has actually been quietly underrated for some time now. NGS also says that his 5.6 yards allowed per target is the lowest among all DBS (minimum of 150 targets) since 2019.
Fortunately for Dean, he's not going to be underrated for long. He's wrapping up his fourth season, and since he wasn't a first-round pick there is no fifth-year option for the Buccaneers to pick up. He's going to get a new contract somewhere (fingers crossed it's in Tampa), and when he inevitably gets paid like a top corner more people are going to realize that he is a top corner.
This may be a little odd, but I really want the Bucs to win the division, among many reasons, so I can get some "Back to back" division champs gear. As far as I can remember, we've never done that. With your website sources, Scott, can you see how many teams in the NFL have never won their division in consecutive years before?
Thanks for the great podcast as always and let's hope Bowles and Leftwich have a great revenge game against their former team and give us all a very Merry Christmas!
- Sam (via email to email@example.com)
As you can see, I swiped this from the inbox for our Salty Dogs podcast (give it a listen, you might enjoy it!). I just happened to enjoy the question and I did the research to answer it, so I thought I'd share it with another audience of Buccaneer fans.
Sam is correct in that an NFC South championship would give the Buccaneers division titles in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history, and that includes the franchise's time as part of the NFC Central. Depending upon how you define a certain thing – I'll get to that in a moment – there are either one or two other teams in the NFL that have never won consecutive division titles.
The team that definitely joins the Buccaneers on that list is Atlanta. The Falcons debuted in 1966 and didn't win a division title until 1980, when they were first in the NFC West, which used to make little geographical sense. They had a nice run from 2008 to 2012 but went second, second, first, second, first. They most recently won the NFC South in 2016. But not once have they gone back to back.
The other team that you could include on this list is Detroit. The NFL first started referring to "divisions" in 1967, when there were the Capitol and Century Divisions in the Eastern Conference and the Coastal and Central Divisions in the Western Conference. Those names are actually kind of fun, but when the NFL and AFL merged in 1970 they went fully to geographical division names, with the conferences as we know them now, each having Eastern, Central and Western Divisions. The names were all shortened when the league realigned in 2002 and added two more conferences; now they're known as East, West, North and South.
From 1950 to 1966, the NFL just split into Eastern and Western Conferences (the AFL used the word divisions from 1961 on). For some reason, the same setup from 1933 to 1949 used the word "division" before the change to "conference" in 1950. The NFL first split into two whatevers in 1933 after it spent its first 13 seasons in one big league. In 1926, the Louisville Colonels came in 22nd!
So here's the deal, since the NFL re-introduced the subcategory of "divisions" in 1967, the Detroit Lions have never won theirs in back to back seasons. The last time Detroit had two consecutive titles (actually three) was from 1952-54, when they won the Western Conference twice (and the league championship in 1953). So if you don't think that should count, the Lions are on the list, too.
Since I looked up every team, I might as well share the results here. I've listed all the teams in order of how recently they won back-to-back division titles. In some cases, the streaks were longer than two in a row so I included the entire run. Here it is:
- Kansas City: 2016-22
- Buffalo: 2020-21 (and possibly 2022)
- Green Bay: 2019-21
- Tennessee: 2020-21
- New Orleans: 2017-20
- Baltimore: 2018-19
- Houston: 2018-19
- New England: 2009-19
- L.A. Rams: 2017-18
- Pittsburgh: 2016-17
- Carolina: 2013-15
- Denver: 2011-15
- Indianapolis: 2013-14
- Seattle: 2013-14
- San Francisco: 2011-12
- Arizona: 2008-09
- L.A. Chargers: 2006-09
- Minnesota: 2008-09
- Chicago: 2005-06
- Philadelphia: 2001-04
- Las Vegas: 2000-02
- Jacksonville: 1998-99
- Dallas: 1992-96
- N.Y. Giants: 1989-90
- Cleveland: 1985-87
- Miami: 1981-85
- Washington: 1982-84
- Cincinnati: 1981-82 (and possibly 2021-22)
- New York Jets: 1968-69*
- Detroit: 1952-54
- Atlanta: Never
- Tampa Bay: Never
(* In the AFL. ** NFL's subdivided groups called conferences in these years.)
A few additional observations here:
1. The NFC East has been the NFL's most volatile division for the last two decades, almost. None of the four teams has won consecutive titles since 2004.
2. The Patriots' 20 seasons of dominance offered little opportunity for the other three teams, though Buffalo has finally emerged on the other side with two and possibly three AFC East titles in a row. The Jets have never gone back to back since the 1970 merger, only doing it while they were still in the AFL Eastern Division.
3. Because they are the most recent expansion teams, the Texans, Jaguars and Panthers were obvious guesses to this question, but Houston and Carolina actually have fairly recent multiple-title runs. Jacksonville busted out of the gate quickly, winning the AFC Central in just its fourth season and then again in its fifth.
4. The Chiefs are the only team so far that has successfully defended its 2021 division title, running their streak in the AFC West to seven in a row. However, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Tennessee are also all in first place at the moment and could repeat in 2022. The same is true for Tampa Bay, which is why we're having this discussion in the first place, and it's still possible for Dallas.
These last couple games have been rough, and I know nobody likes losing, players or fans. I always root for the Buccaneers to win no matter what the situation. However, I was wondering what you think about where the Buccs stand right now and what the best outcome of the next few weeks would be. By htat I mean, if the Buccaneers do win the division and make the playoffs, they probably won't go too far. I listened to Salty Dogs this morning and you ran down all the teams that have made the playoffs at 8-8 or worse. If I remember it right, some of them won their first game in the playoffs but none won their second. Is it possible that, even if I can't physically get myself to root for them to lose the Bucs might be BETTER OFF if they don't win the division. The potential difference in their position in next year's draft would be worse. As a fan, what should I want more.
Again, I'm going to root for wins the next three weeks no matter what your answer is. I'm just curious how you feel about all this. Thanks!
- Merrill C. (via email)
The best outcome is winning, so follow your instincts, Merrill.
To paraphrase something that was said to me by a reporter yesterday during practice, you don't get to hang banners every year. Division titles are hard to come by, and as the question above made clear, consecutive titles are even rarer. I would like to be able to remove the Buccaneers from the bottom of that list and leave the Falcons (and maybe the Lions) as the only teams never to win consecutive division titles.
Until last year, the Buccaneers hadn't won an NFC South crown since 2007. Even though that team suffered a heartbreaking loss to the eventual-champion Rams in the second round of the playoffs, that division title is still a noteworthy accomplishment. There is a new banner in the Buccaneers' indoor facility because of it. Years from now, it's not really going to matter if that banner was the result of a 9-8 or 8-9 season.
And, yes, it's true that none of the previous division winners to finish .500 or worse have gone farther than the second round of the playoffs. But, you know what, no team had ever won a Super Bowl in its home stadium before the Buccaneers did it in 2020 (thereby breaking the seal so that the Rams could do it too the very next year). Very few teams had ever won three straight road games to make it to the playoffs, like the Bucs did in 2020. No team had ever come back from a 33-0 deficit to win a game before the Vikings did it just this past weekend. Just because something has never been done in the NFL before doesn't mean it can't be done. You want your Buccaneers to get into the dance, and then we'll see what happens.
Besides, I think the difference in draft position is an overrated concern. Let's say the next few weeks don't go well and the Buccaneer finish, oh, 7-10 and don't win the division. That will probably slot them somewhere around the ninth or 10th pick in the first round. If they win the division they will end up somewhere between 19th and, if all our dreams come true, 32nd. Just for this discussion, let's say we're choosing between the 10th and 20th picks. I fully believe that Jason Licht and company can find a great player who will help the team at either 10 or 20, and of course, there's always the possibility of trading up or down. Licht has proved adept at that during his tenure.
Of course you always want the higher pick if you can get it, but the draft is such a crapshoot and it's impossible to know right now how much better the options will be at 10 or 11 than they would be at 20 or 30. We know exactly what is possible if the Bucs win their remaining games: a division title. I want that, the players and coaches want that, and you should too. And then once we get there, we can start dreaming bigger and ride the ride as long as it lasts.