After three games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the rare driver’s seat in the NFC South, but have ‘a long way to go again’

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TAMPA, Fla. – With their road victory over the Indianapolis Colts last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers improved to 8-3 and took a three-game lead in the NFC South for the first time since Week 13 of the 2007 season.

The Bucs have one game left against the Atlanta Falcons (Sunday), one against the New Orleans Saints (December 19) and two against the Carolina Panthers (December 26 and January 9), but aside from a meltdown, they should reach division, and maybe more as they are currently No. 3 seed in the NFC and tied for the second-best record in the NFL.

“I mean, it’s gonna happen [be] you can lock it in or be in air combat all the way to the end, ”coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday, suggesting this race is not over.

“The Saints have had a ton of injuries. We’ve had some injuries too. But there’s still a long way to go. The Saints are a hell of a football team. That defense – I never cross them. Carolina has played well and badly and Atlanta is a game out of the playoffs. Three games ahead right now – we have a long way to go again. “

Here’s a closer look at what’s happened in the division, starting with the Falcons, whom the Bucs defeated 48-25 in Week 2.

Atlanta Falcons (5-6)

The Bucs’ goal against Atlanta is to make them one-dimensional, and it starts with stopping Cordarrelle Patterson, who enjoys a breakout season at age 30, averaging 91.1 yards from scrimmage per game.

It also limits rookie tight-end Kyle Pitts, who has been a focal point for the Falcons’ attack since their first meeting in Week 2. His 661 receiving yards finished third among tight-ends through Week 12.

Quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown five interceptions in his last three games. On the season, he averages just 237.9 passing yards per game. fight, his lowest since 2010. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who stepped away from the team to focus on his mental health, has not returned, so they have had to lean more heavily. on Russell Gage as the No. 1 recipient. He scored his first touchdown since Week 7 last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Defensively, they are still struggling to disrupt the quarterback. Dante Fowler leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones also missed the final game with a shoulder injury. Cornerback AJ Terrell has shown growth from year 1 to year 2, but as a whole, the Falcons’ defense gives 27.5 points per game – second most in the NFL. Overall, they need more pieces.

New Orleans Saints (5-7)

While quarterback Trevor Siemian beat the Bucs in Week 8 after Jameis Winston went down with a torn ACL, he has been unable to repeat that magic since, running 0-4. His replacement, Taysom Hill, had a disastrous outcome against the Dallas Cowboys during a Thursday night football loss, 27-17, when he threw four interceptions.

But it’s not just the quarterback position that is ravaged by injuries. The Saints were without defensive end Marcus Davenport, running back Alvin Kamara, left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk on Thursday night, in addition to having wide receiver Michael Thomas and cornerback CJ Gardner-Johnson on injured reserve.

Their defense – which was once considered one of the better defenses in the league – has also declined. In the four matches on the way to Thursday, they had given up an average of 30.25 points per game, fifth most in the league, while in weeks 1-8 they gave 18.29 points per game, fourth best. Still, they have had the Bucs’ number, even with quarterback Tom Brady, who has surpassed them 128-83 in four games over the past two seasons (including the 2020 division playoffs), meaning they can never be counted out.

Carolina Panthers (5-7)

The Panthers started 3-0 before a four-game losing streak. They managed to upset the team with the best record (9-2) in the NFL in the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10.

Quarterback Sam Darnold went on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury after Week 9. The Panthers then started PJ Walker against the Cardinals before re-signing Cam Newton. Newton took over as the starter in weeks 11 and 12, but he was then benched during the week 12 loss to Washington after a poor start in which Walker stepped in.

Their offensive line continues to struggle and has given up 31 sacks so far this season, right in sixth place in the NFL. Running back Christian McCaffrey – the focal point of Carolina’s attack, even with all the speed they have on wide receiver – is out of season with an ankle injury. The Panthers are 4-3 with him and 1-4 without him this year.

Defensively, they give up 21.08 yards per game – eighth in the league. But they surrendered 198 yards on the ground to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, 190 against Washington in Week 11 and 151 to the New England Patriots in Week 9. They have also reached a point where coach Matt Rhule puts healthy players on the bench. , as well as defensive tackle Derrick Brown, their first-round pick in 2020 and a furious Brian Burns blowing in the air on teammates on the sidelines against Miami.

Cornerback Donte Jackson was also just placed on injured reserve due to a groin injury. They use Stephon Gilmore – acquired mid-season from the Patriots to help fill the shoes of injured first-round pick Jaycee Horn – more, but he is recovering from a quadriceps injury and has been used primarily on third downs.

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