TAMPA — From this distance, they can look intimidating. From this far away, they can seem unreachable.
Only four NFL teams are still standing after 264 regular- and postseason games, and they form an impressive group. There is Pittsburgh and its head-seeking missile of a safety. There is Green Bay and its fast-rising quarterback. There is Chicago and its brutal defense, and there is New York and its bold coach.
Sure, you could quibble with New England and Atlanta, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC, taking early leaves. You may even bemoan a team as good as Baltimore heading so soon to the offseason. Still, it is not as if a slacker was able to talk its way past the NFL's back door.
These are four good football teams. There may even be a great one in the bunch.
Which brings us to this morning's question in Tampa Bay:
Just how far away are the Buccaneers?
As you watched the first two rounds of the NFL playoffs, did you feel better, or worse, about Tampa Bay's place among league contenders? Were you convinced the Bucs will still be playing next January, or were you concerned that the gap seemed too wide?
Or maybe you should look at it this way:
Would the Bucs have been a worthy playoff opponent this month?
Honestly, they were better than Seattle and just as good as a banged-up New Orleans lineup by season's end. They were definitely comparable to Kansas City and probably in the same class as Indianapolis. So, yes, the Bucs could have entered the first week of the NFL postseason without shame or fear.
And, after that, would the Bucs have been a legitimate contender for a conference title?
Sorry, not where they stand today.
The Bucs covered the divide between weak and strong with remarkable speed this season, but there are still brighter lights in the distance. Tampa Bay is not ready for Pittsburgh. The Bucs are not as good as Green Bay, and would lose more often than not against the Jets.
So what do the Bucs need to take that next step?
Perhaps the best way to find that answer is by looking more closely at the 12 postseason teams and the four franchises still standing. In other words, what were some of the common threads among the NFL's elite in the 2010 season?
You could start with quarterbacks.
Of the top 12 QBs in the league's passer ratings, nine took their team to the playoffs. Which is why, in recent NFL drafts, the Lions, Jets and Rams were willing to guarantee Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford $120 million before they ever played a down.
From that standpoint, the Bucs are in great shape. Josh Freeman was the highest-rated quarterback in the NFC not to make the playoffs and is, arguably, the best QB under the age of 25 in the NFL.
Which brings us to turnovers, the next common theme.
The top seven teams in the NFL in turnover differential all made the playoffs. And three (Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New York) of the top six teams are still alive today. Turnover differential can fluctuate greatly from year to year, but it typically indicates teams that have quarterbacks who protect the ball or defenses that play aggressively, or some combination of the two.
Once again, the Bucs fare well in this category. Tampa Bay was eighth in the NFL in turnover differential, which made the Bucs the highest-rated team not to reach the playoffs.
And that brings us to the greatest common denominator in this postseason:
The eight teams that allowed the fewest points in 2010 all reached the playoffs. Of course, that's just common sense. A good-looking scoreboard leads to more victories, right? Except it doesn't translate as well on offense. Only four of the eight highest-scoring offenses made the playoffs.
Taking it a step further, Pittsburgh (No. 1), Green Bay (No. 2) Chicago (No. 4) and New York (No. 6) were all among the best defenses in the NFL. But when it came to scoring points, Green Bay (No. 10), Pittsburgh (No. 12), New York (No. 13) and Chicago (No. 21) were fairly average.
And this is where Tampa Bay has some room to make up.
Statistically, the Bucs were pretty good on defense. Realistically, they were not very nasty. They don't get a lot of sacks, they're not terribly good on run defense and they are far from intimidating.
This isn't breaking any new ground, but it should reinforce the need for Tampa Bay to beef up its defense in the offseason. Whether that comes through the draft or through free agency, the Bucs need to find more playmakers on defense.
So is that reason for pessimism? Is it a sign the Bucs were a fluke?
For the most part, this offseason has reinforced the point that the Bucs are heading in the right direction.
They just have a little farther still to go.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.