Is the NFC South ready to dominate again?
By some measures, the division in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reside has been the league's most competitive and most successful since the NFL realigned into eight groups in 2002. For one thing, the NFC South is the only one of those eight divisions that has already produced two different Super Bowl Champions (the 2002 Buccaneers and the 2009 New Orleans Saints).
That's a big one, obviously, but there's more. The NFC South and the NFC West are the only two divisions from which three different teams have made the Super Bowl since 2002 (also Carolina in 2003). Atlanta hasn't advanced to the final game yet, but they were on the doorstep in 2004, making the NFC South the only division from which all four teams have made it to a conference title game. In six of the eight full seasons since realignment, at least one NFC South team has been in the conference title game.
What makes the South as interesting as it has been successful is how frequently the also-rans have rebounded to become instant competitors. In all but one season since the Buccaneers took the first division title in 2002, the team that finished last in one season became the champ the following season. The 2007-08 Falcons were the only team not to follow that pattern, though Atlanta came extremely close by rebounding from a four-win '07 season to finish 11-5 in '08 and make the playoffs as a Wild Card behind the12-4 Panthers.
The Saints re-established the trend last year, and obviously the Buccaneers hope to keep it going in 2010. They're off to a good start in that endeavor, with a 2-1 record through four weeks. That includes this past weekend's bye, during which Tampa Bay fans almost saw their team slide into first place in the South without scoring a single point.
Unfortunately, the Falcons and Saints each pulled out down-to-the wire 16-14 victories on Sunday, over San Francisco and Carolina respectively. Thus Atlanta and New Orleans each improved to 3-1 on the young season, a half-game up on the idle Buccaneers. With the 2-1 New England Patriots set to play the 2-1 Miami Dolphins on Monday night, the South will soon be the only division in the NFL with three teams sporting only one loss (barring a Pats-Phins tie).
The Buccaneers return to action next Sunday in Cincinnati against the 2-2 Bengals. Regardless of how Atlanta and New Orleans fare at Cleveland and Arizona, respectively, on that same weekend, Tampa Bay could help the NFC South get off to a rare collective start.
Over the last seven seasons, only three divisions (out of a possible 56) have seen three of their teams get off to 3-1 or better starts. Washington, New York and Philadelphia did it for the NFC East in 2005; Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee pulled it off for the AFC South in 2007; and the NFC East did it again in 2008 with New York, Dallas and Washington.
Two other divisions managed the same feat in 2002, the first year after realignment, and the final results were very memorable for the Buccaneers. In the NFC South, the Bucs, Panthers and Saints all fired out of the gates to 3-1 starts or better, as did Oakland, San Diego and Denver in the AFC West. Not surprisingly, representatives from those two divisions made up the final pairing in Super Bowl XXXVII. The Bucs beat the Raiders, 48-21, in that championship game for their first NFL title.
That doesn't mean a Tampa Bay win in Cincinnati next Sunday will punch a ticket for the Bucs, Falcons or Saints to Dallas in February, of course. But if the Buccaneers – this year's bottom-to-top candidate – can keep up their hot start, it looks like it will be another ultra-competitive fall in the NFC South.
And just in time for Tampa Bay to play all three of its division rivals over the following five weeks.
One More Bonus Day
Before setting off on a long weekend, the Buccaneers used the middle of their bye week to get some extra time in on the practice field. The team held a brief walk-through on Tuesday and then conducted two 90-minute practices on Wednesday and Thursday, focusing largely on fundamental work and the development of some promising rookies.
Now, attention turns full force to the Bengals, who currently rank sixth in the NFL in both passing offense and total defense. Usually that means game-planning for the coaching staff on Tuesday and the beginning of practice on Wednesday, but this week will get an earlier start thanks to the bye.
Head Coach Raheem Morris gave the players Monday off but will have them back at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday for a full, two-hour practice in the afternoon. After that, the practice week will carry on as usual from Wednesday through Friday. In essence, the Buccaneers have the chance to duplicate their usual Wednesday session, which is when the installation of the game plan begins. Hopefully, that will lead to a more prepared team on Sunday in Cincy.
"It [gave] us an opportunity to go back and take a look at our team from a fundamental standpoint," said quarterback Josh Freeman of the extra time afforded by the bye week. "We're definitely doing a lot of work for Cincinnati and also getting a lot of reps, getting a lot of these young guys reps, too."
Few would argue that Ronde Barber is one of the greatest players in Buccaneers franchise history, or that he ranks among his generation's most accomplished cornerbacks in the entire NFL.
Barber's franchise-record 39 interceptions, including two already this season, obviously secure his place in Buccaneer history. And as one of only two players in NFL annals to record both 25 sacks and 30 interceptions (also Rodney Harrison), he has begun to build a pretty intriguing resume for Canton.
But perhaps an underrated aspect of Barber's outstanding career has been his amazing durability.
As a rookie in 1997, Barber played in only one regular-season game while he absorbed the team's Tampa Two scheme. However, he was on the field for the opener in 2008 and by the seventh game of that season he was in the starting lineup at left cornerback. He came in as a reserve for one game in 1998 and one game in 1999, but he was at right cornerback for the first play of the 10th contest of the 1999 season
Since then, every single Buccaneers box score has featured Barber as a starting cornerback. His ongoing streaks are thus at 195 consecutive games played and 170 consecutive starts.
Because Barber toils for the same franchise that enjoyed the unbroken 14-year run of linebacker Derrick Brooks, neither of those streaks are franchise records (yet). Brooks played in 224 consecutive games from 1995-2008, and started the last 208.
Among players at his position, however, Barber isn't just the Buccaneers' all-time leader. He is practically the most dependable cornerback in NFL history.
The Buccaneers recently got a taste of the Pittsburgh defense directed by highly-respected Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau. Before LeBeau became a standout in the coaching arena, he was one of the NFL's best players from 1959-72. During that stretch, the 200_ Hall of Fame inductee started 171 consecutive games; research by the Detroit Lions indicate that LeBeau's streak is the longest by a cornerback in NFL history.
If so, LeBeau is about to have company.
Barber's start against the Steelers on September 26 was his 170th in a row. Barring an upset of monumental proportions, he will make his 171st career start this coming Sunday in Cincinnati. That would put Barber in position to break LeBeau's NFL record the following weekend at home against the New Orleans Saints, a team he has often terrorized in the past.
Barber, in fact, owns two of the three-interception games by an individual in Buccaneer history. Both came against the Saints. Barber's seven interceptions against New Orleans represent close to 20% of his overall career total and are as many as any other opponent has against the Saints other than Nolan Cromwell.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Barber has played 19 contests against New Orleans. That total is bound to rise when you never miss a game.