No team was supposed to benefit more from realignment than the Buccaneers.
Having won just three division titles in as many decades while playing in the NFC Central, Tampa Bay wasn't just a candidate to change divisions in 2002. It pleaded for it like a terrier after a T-bone.
That's because the Bucs knew they would be the favorites to dominate the new NFC South.
Playing in a division with three teams that failed to reach the playoffs a year ago was supposed to be a walk in the park after a day at the beach.
"I pretty much looked at it the way most people did," Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "I pretty much said, "Carolina? Atlanta? They're terrible. (Falcons coach) Dan Reeves is gone. New Orleans? Nah, they ain't going to make it.' I mean I'm pretty sure everybody looked at it that way. I mean, that's human nature."
Safety John Lynch also was duped.
"I think we were like anyone else. When you initially saw it, you said that's a good thing for the Bucs," Lynch said. "I think those were the comments you were getting.
"Then you remember before we played the Saints last year, that was one of the hot teams in the league and they had guys like Aaron Brooks and a good offensive line. And Michael Vick, you knew that was a time bomb waiting to explode up there in Atlanta. Carolina gets a coach like John Fox and every game comes down to the wire."
The South has risen as the only division in the NFC with three teams that have winning records.
Tampa Bay is tied with New Orleans at 7-2 with the second-best record in the NFL. The Falcons are vying for a wild-card spot at 5-3-1 and have not lost since Oct. 6 against the Bucs.
"It's just one of those things where we find ourselves in the best division in football again," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You know? We were in the Central when it was the best division in football."
This afternoon against Carolina at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs begin a murderous four-game stretch that essentially will determine their position in the postseason.
After the rematch with the Panthers, Tampa Bay hosts Green Bay, which has the league's best record at 8-1, on Nov. 24. On Dec. 1, the Bucs travel to New Orleans for a game that likely will decide the division title. If they negotiate that minefield, they host Atlanta on Dec. 8.
The combined record of those teams is 23-12-1, including Carolina (3-6), which has lost six in a row. But the Panthers blew fourth-quarter leads in five of those losses, collapsing in the final minute in four of them.
"This is the time teams rise above and basically get momentum. It's that time of year," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Some of the teams are going to do it and some of the teams aren't. Last year, the Patriots were 5-5 after losing to the Rams and never lost again. They did it. The Ravens lost to the Steelers in 2000, a 9-6 game, and never lost again. They won out. Some teams are able to take the bull by the horns and take it home, and other teams have to fight and scratch and try to get every win they can. We're trying to distinguish ourselves, but we've got a long way to do it."
The good news is the Bucs are rested and relatively healthy after a bye week.
Quarterback Brad Johnson, who did not play in the Bucs' 12-9 win in Charlotte three weeks ago, is nearly fully recovered from fractured left ribs. And he will have two more targets to throw to. Receivers Keenan McCardell (fractured shoulder blade) and Joe Jurevicius (ankle sprain) will return to the lineup along with guard Kerry Jenkins (fractured left orbital bone).
"Teams start separating themselves really at the end of November and the beginning of December," McCardell said. "Pretenders go home and the contenders keep playing. We've got to realize we've got to play and we've got to play well.
"These are money games. Don't look ahead to anybody because they're going to come when they come. I think this was a test for us in Carolina, and it's going to be another test for us (today). They're going to come out ready to play."
A victory today would give the Bucs their best start after 10 games. Tampa Bay controls its own destiny.
If the Bucs were to win out, they would own homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
"I've been in this situation before," Brad Johnson said. "And in this league, I think you've seen more three-game winning streaks and three-game losing streaks than ever before this year. The big thing is, focus on Carolina, get the win and move on. Obviously, if you're going to have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, you're going to have to win 13, maybe 14 games to get that. So we just need to take Carolina and see where it takes us."
Under Tony Dungy, the Bucs played their best the final two months of the season. But Gruden's Raiders teams often faded down the stretch. In the past two seasons, Gruden went 2-2 and 1-3 in December.
"It's a great situation to be in this late in the season," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. "And it's one I've never been in before, to still be riding it out and driving that bus and running everybody over in front of us."
THE BIG 4
The next four games for the Bucs will go a long way in determining Tampa Bay's postseason fate:
Date Opponent Rec Comment
TODAY: Panthers 3-6 Defense is ranked third in league.
NOV. 24: Packers 8-1 Former rival has best record in league.
DEC. 1: at Saints 7-2 Beat Bucs 26-20 in season opener.
DEC. 8: Falcons 5-3-1 Last loss was to Bucs on Oct. 6