TAMPA — Playing in the NFC South is not for the faint of heart.
It's a division in which champions are quickly relegated to afterthoughts and last-place teams consistently emerge from the ashes to claim the title the next season. It's a field of booby-traps in which missteps can be costly.
It has produced a contestant in the league championship game in five of the past six seasons.
So why doesn't anyone notice?
"I've said since realignment (in 2002) that the South has been very disrespected in terms of it being a competitive division," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said.
"The champion changes every year. We deserve respect, and I think this year the other teams that are playing will give us a chance to have that."
The four-team NFC South is led by 7-2 Carolina, with the immensely talented Saints pulling up the rear at 4-5 and hardly out of contention. The scene is set for a furious finish, with a number of division games and marquee matchups involving division members remaining.
Currently, only the storied NFC East (24-12) has a better combined record than the NFC South (23-13).
The Bucs stand at 6-3 and in position to close strong. In their last five regular-season games, they have three consecutive division games Nov. 30-Dec. 14: New Orleans, a Monday night game at Carolina, and at Atlanta.
The tight race "makes every game that we play from here on out extremely important," center Jeff Faine said. "They're all must-wins. The good thing is that our destiny isn't with somebody else. We can control our destiny if we win. It's going to be a fun stretch."
No story line in the South is more surprising than the resurgence of the Falcons, who were down and out last season after a series of on- and off-field issues that included the unexpected departure of coach Bobby Petrino and the dogfighting plea of former quarterback Michael Vick.
"You would never have guessed (rookie quarterback) Matt Ryan could do this so soon," right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said. "And they're a good team. It's not like this is a fluke."
Another thing on the Falcons' side? Every team that has finished last in the NFC South has finished first the next season. Atlanta finished last in 2007.
Last season the Bucs clinched the division with two games remaining. No one figures to have such a luxury this season, not with three of the four division teams at 6-3 or better. Things might not be settled until Week 17.
Which is just fine.
"Competition brings out the best in everyone," Trueblood said. "You can kind of get complacent when you're doing well. It's going to (stink) for the team that doesn't get in the playoffs."
What's to come for the Bucs and others down the stretch?
"It will be a sprint to the finish," coach Jon Gruden said.