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Bucs’ NFC South division championship drought is nearing an end

Tampa Bay could clinch its first division crown since the 2007 season with wins over Atlanta and Buffalo.
Even with a loss to the Saints earlier this season, Mike Evans and the Bucs are in good position to clinch the NFC South.
Even with a loss to the Saints earlier this season, Mike Evans and the Bucs are in good position to clinch the NFC South. [ DERICK HINGLE | Associated Press ]
Published Dec. 4, 2021

TAMPA — The iPhone was launched. The housing bubble burst. The Departed won an Oscar for Best Picture.

It also was the last year the Bucs won the NFC South.

The 2007 season wasn’t very memorable except that it began a 13-year drought of no division championships for Tampa Bay.

With a win Sunday at Atlanta and Dec. 12 against Buffalo at Raymond James Stadium — and a little help from the Jets and Falcons next week — the Bucs could clinch the division with four games to play. Three straight wins would crown them champs regardless of any other outcome.

Now, the Bucs did win Super Bowl 55 last season as a wild card while that fourth straight NFC South title didn’t amount to much for the Saints.

But having to win three road playoff games with a limited fan capacity in stadiums was a much less daunting task than it would be this season.

“If winning the division comes with winning the NFC and the Super Bowl? Then cool,” cornerback Carlton Davis said. “We’ll take it.

“As we’ve seen last year, it can go a number of ways. We would like it to go in our favor and win the division and have home-field advantage. But either way, we’re trying to get the job done in January and February.”

Quarterback Tom Brady has a 66-16 career record in the month of December. Four of the Bucs’ final six games are against division opponents, including two in the final three weeks against the Panthers.

“I think just winning against a division opponent is tough,” Brady said. “When you play division opponents on the road, it’s a challenging game. We’ve got four division games coming up. We didn’t do so (well) the last division game on the road (at New Orleans), so we’ve got to take care of business.”

A year ago, the Bucs arrived in Atlanta with an 8-5 record and needing to win to keep pace in the NFC wild-card race. They fell behind 17-0 before an inspiring halftime speech from linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul sparked a 31-point second half and led to a 31-27 victory.

“(Division games) are bigger than the non-division games because they know you and you know them,” Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “You know no matter what the records are, every game is going to be a dog fight.”

In some ways, this is the perfect season for the Bucs to finally reclaim the top spot in the NFC South. The Falcons are in transition under new coach Arthur Smith. The Saints are enduring their first season in decades without Drew Brees at quarterback, and his replacement, Jameis Winston, sustained a season-ending injury in a Halloween win over Tampa Bay.

Carolina began the season 3-0 and with a top-rated defense. But quarterback Sam Darnold (shoulder) is on injured reserve. His replacement, former Panthers No. 1 pick Cam Newton, was benched last week after a 5-for-20, two-interception start. The Saints, losers of five straight, haven’t won since beating the Bucs 36-27.

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Jeff Garcia, now 51, was the last Bucs quarterback to start a home playoff game — against the Giants after they won the NFC South in the 2007 season.

The Bucs are long past due.

But even with a three-game lead, coach Bruce Arians isn’t chicken counting.

“The Saints have had a ton of injuries,” Arians said. “We’ve had some injuries also. We have a long way to go. The Saints are a hell of a football team. That defense, I’ll never cross them out. Carolina has played good and bad. Atlanta is not out of the playoffs. Three-game lead right now. We’ve got a lot way to go.”

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