TAMPA — Here's how bad things are in pro football's loser's bracket, otherwise known as the NFC South.
The 1-5 Bucs awoke Monday after their bye week to discover that despite slumbering through the first six games in the Lovie Smith era, they are only two wins out of first place in their division. That's because the Panthers (3-3), Saints (2-4) and Falcons (2-5) all lost on Sunday.
In lieu of a real victory, it was something to celebrate at One Buc Place.
"I watched all the games this week," Smith said. "I know what happened in our division. I realize how many games we're out of first place. We're in it as much as anyone with our record. That's what we're focused on. There's life when you take a little time off to not play a game and you end up in better position than when we started Sunday … we're excited about that."
Here's what else the Bucs should be excited about. Starting with Sunday's game against the Vikings (2-5) at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs don't play a team that currently owns a winning record until visiting the Bengals (3-2-1) Nov. 30. The combined record of Tampa Bay's next five opponents is 12-22.
After Sunday, the Bucs are at Cleveland (3-3), home against the Falcons (2-5) and at the Redskins (2-5) and Bears (3-4).
Of course, considering blowout losses to the Falcons and Ravens, the Bucs might not be striking fear into any of those opponents. But there is a case to be made that the NFC South winner could finish with a losing record.
The Bucs also are getting healthier. Quarterback Josh McCown (thumb), safety Dashon Goldson (ankle) and cornerback Johnthan Banks (neck) all returned to practice on Monday.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said Bucs players still see an opportunity for a turnaround.
"How many games have we lost? Five? We've won one," McCoy said. "So if we win out, we'll be 11-5? Pretty good shot to go to the playoffs. So there is an opportunity. All of our division opponents lost … so yes, there is an opportunity."
Said receiver Louis Murphy, "I still feel we can be the NFC South champs. I believe in our team, I believe in our coaches, I believe in everything we've got going."
Smith addressed his team Monday after a four-day break and told players they needed a different mind-set, one that is short-term and focuses on the task in front of them — morning walkthroughs, afternoon practices, position meetings.
The message is that if they each get better individually, the product will be better collectively.
"Take it a day at a time," Murphy said. "DYJ. Do your job. You can't worry about the next person, you can't think about, 'Is the line holding up? Is the quarterback being sacked?' As a receiver, my success depends on the entire team. Even from Urban Meyer (for whom Murphy played at Florida), that was instilled in us. Do your job. That's the same motto here. Do your job, look yourself in the mirror and that's the mind-set we have to have.
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"Everybody take care of your own business and when we come together, the synergy will be strong."
Smith said there is no value to looking back. He says the break in the schedule — and the one they received with Sunday's results — can jump-start the season. But it begins Sunday against an equally desperate Vikings team.
"They know what we need to do, but the talking part, we need to do less of that and it's what we do out on the football field one day at a time, one play at a time, that's the message.
"Sometimes it takes going away, sometimes it takes getting embarrassed a few times, and then going away and seeing things become a lot clearer, and boom: You show up at Raymond James (Stadium) after a great week of practice and you look like a football team."