Tampa Bay Bucs: Road to Playoffs Runs Through Division

Tony Lopez@ToneszoneContributor IMay 29, 2009

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 21: Running back Clifton Smith #22 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returns a kick against the San Diego Chargers at Raymond James Stadium on December 21, 2008 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Last season, the NFC South was one of the toughest divisions in the NFC.

With no team finishing worse than .500 and the Panthers and Falcons making the playoffs with more than 10 victories each, only the NFC East had as much competition from top to bottom.

The Carolina Panthers figure to be preseason picks to repeat as division champs. Considering that they retained all their key players and turned over the bottom half of the roster, this makes their team stronger and repeating a strong possibility.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints must feel like they can make a move in this division because of an offseason dedicated to vastly improving a weak defense that cost them victories last year.

Last season’s Cinderella, the Atlanta Falcons will probably take a step back as they continue to rebuild their defense that failed them in the playoffs. Their offense will continue to be potent but not enough to win games, much like New Orleans dealt with last season.

With this season figuring to offer similar competition as last year, the Buccaneers are going to have to fight tooth-and-nail to be in contention for a playoff spot.

This season will be tough not only because of their divisional games, but because their schedule also features games against a strong NFC East and AFC East field.

The way their schedule is made up, it has them playing most of their out of division games before their Week Eight bye, and then it has them playing most of their division games in the second half of the season.

This will make for a bumpy stretch run in the NFC South with the remaining teams hovering around the .500 mark looking to make their claim on the division.

Last season, winning division games late in the year was their Achilles' heel. Losing two big games on the road in the final month cost them a playoff spot and maybe even the division crown.

By hovering around the .500 mark during the early parts of the season, the Bucs can make a move on the division by winning those late season division games.

With a bountiful amount of questions still facing this team and a possible transition period with the new coaching staff, the Bucs have a ways to go this offseason.

While Coach Morris and his youthful energy should keep his squad upbeat and working hard, the overall lack of depth on the defensive side of the ball will present obstacles that may cost them some games.

Every fan wants to see a rapid rebuilding like we saw in Miami and Atlanta last season, but that just isn’t the norm in the NFL.

These Buccaneers are coming off a winning season that ended in disappointment and are looking for new leadership after their roster was purged of aging veterans.

For things to come together quickly for the Bucs, they need to figure out who will be the trigger man to lead an explosive offensive attack this unit promises with the abundance of talent in the O-Line and skill positions and pray the defense shakes out a consistent unit.

These are things that in a perfect or Madden-simulated world can come together quickly, but in the real world, these things most often take at least a year or another coaching staff.

In all reality though, I see this season as a season for learning tough lessons. This Bucs team is a young team going through changes that will most likely stumble out of the gates, and for this reason, I see the Josh Freeman era starting after the bye week.

All in all, I see them ultimately finishing with a losing record while making noise within the division by playing their rivals hard to the finish. They will show the necessary potential to ascend the following season and give fans reason for future aspirations.