TAMPA — It's simple math for the first-place Bucs: three consecutive games, multiplied by as many victories, equals winning a tough division.
At least that's the approach defending NFC South champion Tampa Bay (8-3) is taking during its murderer's row of division games: Sunday against New Orleans (5-5), Dec. 8 at Carolina (8-3) and Dec. 14 at Atlanta (7-4).
The Bucs own the tiebreaker over the Panthers and the No. 2 seed in the NFC, so if the season ended today they would have a first-round bye and host the division playoff.
"It's definitely coming down the stretch all across the league, not just in our division," center Jeff Faine said. "Especially for us, with three division games in a row, it's huge. If we can get on a streak here, it can really set us apart from the rest of the division and really set us up pretty nicely for the playoffs. Obviously, the first business is the Saints."
Of course, no NFC South team has defended its title, and there's evidence the division is the league's best.
The NFC South teams are a combined 9-3 nonconference, the best winning percentage of any division. It boasts two 8-3 teams in the Bucs and Panthers, second only in the NFC to the 10-1 Giants. And after New Orleans beat Green Bay on Monday, NFC South teams were a combined 21-2 at home.
"We've got to get real hot right now," Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan said. "This is it, man. We're making a run at the title right now. New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta. Those are three tough teams right now."
After their come-from-behind, 38-20 win at Detroit, the Bucs' attention turned to the Saints. Many planned to watch Monday night's game.
"It's exciting, especially because it's division games," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "Division games in general are exciting, but especially when you've got as much on the line as we do now. I think everybody is excited that we've put ourselves in this position and we kind of control our destiny."
But linebacker Derrick Brooks and coach Jon Gruden won't allow the Bucs to look beyond the Saints on Sunday.
"That gives you guys something to do for three weeks," Brooks told reporters. "It's something for you guys to talk about and write about. For us, it's all about the Saints. Our only division loss, they gave it to us the first game of the season, and we felt we left a lot of plays in New Orleans that could've gone our way. So to me, I start thinking about as soon as the clock hit zero. …We've got to keep our record at home undefeated."
Faine, who played the past two seasons in New Orleans before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent, says the Saints won't have a letdown.
"Being with that team, regardless where they are in the playoff chase, they're always going to give you their best fight," Faine said. "It's going to be a great, great challenge for us this week, and it's a team very capable of beating us. They have every tool they need. An unbelievable offense. And our offense is definitely going to have to match with them and put some points on the board and take advantage of opportunities."
The Saints beat the Bucs 24-20 at New Orleans in the opener.
"We're all still hanging around … I just have great respect for New Orleans," Gruden said. "I know what kind of personnel they have. (Coach) Sean Payton is a guy I've got a lot of respect for. The Panthers are loaded. Defensively, they're for real. And with Jake Delhomme behind the center, they're a proven winner. And you can't deny that (quarterback) Matt Ryan and Coach (Mike) Smith in Atlanta, with (running back) Michael Turner, they've made some great acquisitions. Their quarterback is dominating the league right now. They're impressive. It's going to be interesting."
A year ago, the Bucs essentially wrapped up the division with several weeks left, resting some injured starters in the final two games. The result was a first-round loss at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
"There won't be any stumbling this year," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We understand the urgency it's going to take hopefully going into the playoffs. We've got three division opponents coming up. It's going to decide where we are or if we're in the playoffs."