This week's electronic conversation between Sports columnists John Romano and Gary Shelton:
GS: For most of the season, John, we have agreed the Bucs are pretty good. And for most of the season, we've wondered just how good. Well, isn't this the part of the movie where we find out?
JR: Three division opponents, all with winning records, and the calendar turning over to December? No need for hyperbole, this might be the most important stretch of division games the Bucs have seen in more than a dozen years. If I'm the Bucs, I feel like I have to win two of the three, and one of the victories needs to come against Carolina. Is that asking too much?
GS: Winning is never asking for too much. For the Bucs, for most teams, the key to reaching the playoff has always been success in division games. But I would argue that today's game against New Orleans is the most important one of the three. It's a home game, and a team has to take care of those.
JR: And that's what the Bucs have done best the past couple of seasons. They are 4-1 at home against division opponents since then, and the only loss was the Carolina game at the end of last season when the Bucs put a team of waterboys on the field. If there is a reason for concern, it is that each of the upcoming opponents has a little more desperation in their souls because they're the pursuers.
GS: Turns out, the NFC South isn't bad, is it? Together, the four teams are 29-15, and last week, they averaged 40.5 points per game. I'd say it's sort of the Southeastern Conference of the NFL, only without Kentucky or Mississippi State.
JR: The division is pretty good, but it doesn't hurt when you have the AFC West on your schedule. To use your analogy, it's like the SEC fattening up on the WAC. Among them, the Bucs, Panthers, Saints and Falcons are 9-0 against San Diego, Oakland and Kansas City. At any rate, what do Monte Kiffin's bad boys have to do against the New Orleans offense today?
GS: They could start by getting to Drew Brees. The Bucs' pass rush has been much better lately, but it wouldn't hurt if they bruised Brees. It would also help if the defense scored about three touchdowns.
JR: You're still not sold on this Bucs offense, are you? Just because the defense and special teams combined for more yards than the offense last week is no reason to be so negative. I mean, have you beheld the beauty of that third-down swing pass?
GS: Negative? Hey, I love field goals like I love sunsets. I just wish the Bucs were more lethal in the red zone. Consider this: The Bucs are 12th in the league in yardage gained, but they're 21st in touchdowns. On the other foot, they're tied for second in field goals. Do you sense a shortcoming?
JR: I sense you've been playing in the deep end of the stats pool again. How many times have I told you that you're going to hurt yourself there? But, yes, that is an excellent point. Do you get the feeling the offense is improving, or does it just look that way against the Detroits and Kansas Citys of the world?
GS: I do feel like it's getting better. Especially on those plays where the running back doesn't sack his own quarterback.
JR: Speaking of which, what did you think of Cadillac? The numbers were awful, but that really wasn't the point, was it? I've never been so happy to see a guy average about 6 inches per run.
GS: I thought the Bucs did a great job getting him some work against Detroit. That might pay off down the line when the Bucs play against real NFL defenses.
JR: I'm not sure the New Orleans defense qualifies. My guess is the Bucs offense holds on to the ball enough today to keep Brees and friends off the field, and Tampa Bay wins 20-17. Are you with me on this?
GS: As much as it frightens me to agree with you, yeah. If the Bucs can grip the ball and opportunity, the next three weeks are going to be fun.