TAMPA — The words are not the hard part. It's keeping a straight face as you say them.
So here we go. Repeat after Raheem.
The Bucs are …
Take a deep breath. Bite your lip. Try not to think about the absurdity of what you are about to say.
… the best team …
Think of something sad. Inflation. Taxes. The first-half performance in Sunday's game.
… in the NFC.
You couldn't do it, either, could you? There at the end, you laughed. You guffawed. Chances are, you might have fallen off the couch from giggling too hard. And who can blame you? This is fantastic, funny stuff. The Bucs — the relentless, rampaging Bucs — are the best the NFC has to offer. Who knew? In the land of the juggernauts, with a locker room filled with legends, the Bucs are No. 1.
Coach Raheem Morris said it again Monday. Given a day to reconsider a conference filled with Falcons and Packers and Eagles, Morris stuck to his foam finger. The Bucs are the best team in the NFC, he repeated.
And you thought The Hangover was funny.
"You are what your record says you are," Morris said. "Right now, we are tied for the least amount of losses, and that makes us the best team in the NFC."
Well, you could have fooled me. I didn't even know the NFL had a tiebreaking system at the six-game point of the season. Even if I had, I wouldn't have expected the Bucs to be designated as the neighborhood bully.
Let's see. The Bucs are next to last in the NFL against the run. They have the 23rd best offense and the 22nd best defense. They have beaten four teams with a combined record of 8-18. Against the only two teams they have played that have winning records, they have been outscored 69-19.
So, Raheem, do you really think this is the best team in the NFC?
"Statistics are for losers," Morris said, unsmiling. "You keep bringing up statistics, and we'll keep piling up wins."
Why, there's a deal if I ever heard one. After all, if this really is the best team in the NFC, then why shouldn't Morris keep piling up wins? Why shouldn't this team march through the rest of its schedule thrashing every team that won't surrender? Why shouldn't the Bucs be in the Super Bowl?
After all, the Bucs have nine games left against lesser NFC opponents. So let's print the playoff tickets and widen the trophy case, because if this is the best team in the conference, then only coaching can stop it now. Right?
I kid, I kid. Actually, I think it's cute that Morris is so darned spunky. It has been a long time since things were giddy around One Buc and, after all, four victories can go to a man's head when he has never been there before. Nothing wrong with a little swagger, even if it means that Morris is seeing things the rest of us can't quite make out.
Remember six weeks ago when the Bucs won their opener? That day, Morris said the victory was "nothing." Four wins later, and evidently, it's king of the mountain time. Everyone flex their biceps.
Oh, and by the way, 4-2 is a statistic, too.
The truth of it is, the Bucs aren't close to being the best team in the NFC. I'm not sure they're among the top half-dozen.
Certainly, I think the news of the Bucs' top ranking is going to surprise the Falcons, who are a half-game ahead of the Bucs in the standings. I think it's going to stun the Saints, who beat the Bucs by 25 points two weeks ago. I think it will be a mild surprise to the other eight teams in the NFC that have won as many games as the Bucs. Except for Raheem's, I don't think you'll find a power ranking in America that has the Bucs as the No. 1 team in the conference. It's just not realistic.
On the other hand, the Bucs have been better, and they have been resilient, and they have been fun. They've allowed you to wonder what they might become when the kids grow up. If they can win six of their final 10 games — and maybe even five — the playoffs are in reach.
But the best in the NFC?
No, not yet.
For Morris, here's the problem. The NFL season is long, and traditionally, it hates teams that swagger too early.
Remember Sam Wyche and Five-Dash-Two? That happened back in 1995, when the stars aligned and the Bucs won five of their first seven. Never mind that the Bucs won four straight games by a single score. Wyche was flush with accomplishment, and he couldn't wait for the season to conclude before he told you so.
A few weeks later, the Bucs finished 7-9. To this day, five-dash-two is epitaph of the career of Sam-Dash-Wyche.
If you remember, there was also a bit of a strut two years ago when the Bucs started 9-3 and coach Jon Gruden was talking about how exciting the season's finish was going to be. In hindsight, not so much. Gruden never won another game. The defense caved in, and at the end of the season, Gruden was fired, too.
For Morris, this week was a time to slow it down. They were horrible for most of the day against the Rams. In the end, they still managed only one touchdown. They need to start faster. They need to play better.
Instead, you can say it one more time. Write it down if it helps.
The Bucs are …
… the best team …
… in the NFC.
Not only that, but the AFC had better watch itself.