This article is being written on the heels of Cam Newton and Co. getting smacked around by the New York Giants 36-7 in Thursday night's contest of Week 3.
This comes two weeks after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers basically dominated the Carolina Panthers, and one week after Carolina dominated the New Orleans Saints. Let's not forget to mention that Tampa Bay had these same New York Giants (with a healthier roster) on the brink of being 0-2. But how does this translate into the Buccaneers possibly winning the NFC South?
First, let's look at the the other three teams in the division.
New Orleans looks like the effects of the offseason's bounty scandal is taking a toll on them. Being led by an interim, interim coach is not good for any team, especially one that has had a head coach who was, other than Drew Brees, the face of the franchise. Take Jim Harbaugh away from the San Francisco 49ers, and Alex Smith is probably backing up Tony Romo. Or, take John Fox away from the Denver Broncos. Do Broncos fans really want to watch Jack Del Rio call the shots?
As much as players win games, coaches motivate and put players in the proper positions to make plays. Just look at the NFL's other example of unqualified replacements taking over. You would be hard pressed to decide who was in worse shape, the referees or the Saints.
Then there is Carolina who, just two years ago, was the worst team in the NFL. Sure, they added Cam Newton, but this is not the SEC, and he won't be playing Vanderbilt any time soon. He cannot do it all, especially as NFL players and coaches acclimate to his game. Tonight was evidence of that. The Panthers are definitely in better shape than in 2010, but are they really that much better than 6-10 with a last place schedule?
Then there are those dirty birds—the Atlanta Falcons. Sure, they have looked great in two games, but let's play devil's advocate. We know that Atlanta's Week 1 opponent, Kansas City, has been one of the least impressive teams in the NFL through two weeks. They are currently one of only six teams without a victory. As for Week 2, Peyton Manning had maybe the worst quarter of his entire career on what looked like mostly unforced errors. Still, the Broncos were able to come back and make a game of it. Perhaps Atlanta caught them at the right time?
Now, let's look at the schedules. For all intended purposes, we can consider this a two-team race, eliminating New Orleans and Carolina. Atlanta and Tampa Bay first matchup in Week 12 in Tampa.
This week, the Falcons have a short week and have to go to San Diego to face a Chargers team who should have Ryan Matthews. After that, their schedule looks like this: vs CAR, at WAS, vs OAK, bye, at PHI, vs DAL and at NO. Assuming they go 5-2 in their next seven games, they would come into Tampa at 7-2.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, travels to Dallas this week, then goes home for Washington followed by their bye week. The next five games before Atlanta comes to town are: vs KC, vs NO, at MIN, at OAK (on 10 days rest), vs SD and at CAR. If they win this week in Dallas there is a realistic chance that Tampa could also be 7-2 going into Week 12. Say Tampa wins that game. They will then have a one-game lead in the division, having to play at DEN, vs PHI, at NO (possibly playing for draft position) and the home finale vs St. Louis.
Atlanta, on the other hand, will have New Orleans at home, at CAR, vs NYG and at Detroit. It is safe to say that both teams could go 2-2 in the four games after their first meeting. This would give the Buccaneers a one-game cushion going into Week 17 when they play at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Sure, going into the season you would have to be insane to say the Bucs could go 12-4 or 11-5, but if some of these teams on their schedule are truly this bad... Anything can happen!