While some pundits might think the Bucs’ 36-17 beatdown of the Vikings in the Metrodome says more about Minnesota than it does about Tampa Bay, it’s hard to overlook the impressiveness of this victory for Greg Schiano’s club. After all, the Bucs did rip one of the league’s better defenses for 36 points, routing a 5-2 team that was previously undefeated at home and doing so on a short week of rest, no less.
After last season’s complete collapse — a 4-2 start was ruined by a 10-game losing streak, during which the Bucs were outscored by 17.5 points per game — it’s easy to forget the promise Josh Freeman and Co. showed with a 10-6 campaign in 2009 that left them just short of a wild-card spot. With 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions and a 95.9 passer rating that season, Freeman was sneakily becoming one of the league’s most promising young quarterbacks, and his Bucs looked like a team on the rise.
Now under Schiano’s direction, the team’s 2-4 start might have belied what actually could be a pretty strong team, even with two of its top players in the trenches (DE Adrian Clayborn and OG Davin Joseph) out for the season with injuries. They suffered narrow defeats to three solid NFC East opponents, nearly came back against the Saints in Week Seven and still managed to have a plus-12 margin in points scored entering Thursday despite a 2-4 record. After an excellent performance from Freeman and a breakout day from rookie RB Doug Martin — does anybody else see a little bit of Maurice Jones-Drew in Martin? — the Bucs have proven themselves to be a dangerous opponent.
Unfortunately for Tampa fans, the team’s poor start already might have left them stranded behind the logjam of NFC playoff contenders, with 10 of the 15 other teams in the conference currently boasting a better record than the Bucs.
Still, this team undoubtedly will make some noise in the second half of the season, if not through a frenzied run to the playoffs. Teams like San Diego (Week 10), Denver (Week 13) and Philadelphia (Week 14) will be looking for victories over Tampa to keep pace down the stretch, but the Bucs very well might dash a few of their playoff dreams. Tampa could even play “spoiler” for the currently undefeated Falcons, who might be in a tight race for the NFC’s top seed when they meet the Bucs in Weeks 12 and 17.
Schiano’s crew isn’t the only NFC South team that could be putting a dent in other teams’ postseason plans down the stretch. In a division that has far underperformed considering preseason expectations — it’s the only division in the league with three losing teams — all three of its underachievers could be dangerous opponents late in the season.
While we don’t know how Joe Vitt’s return to New Orleans will impact the Saints, they seem to have righted the ship somewhat with consecutive wins and a streaking Drew Brees (1,193 passing yards, 11 TDs, two interceptions in his last three games). Even with a league-worst defense and rushing attack, the Saints could topple the Eagles (Week Nine), 49ers (Week 12), Giants (Week 14) or Cowboys (Week 16) and knock any of them out of the playoff hunt.
And while the 1-5 Panthers might appear to be in complete disarray, having just fired their GM, an offense littered with explosive weapons could spontaneously ignite just long enough to hand a back-breaking loss to Philly (Week 12), Atlanta (Week 14) or San Diego (Week 15).
So, even after the Bucs, Saints and Panthers limped out to some of the most disappointing starts of 2012, their impact on this NFL season shall not be lost. Though they probably squandered a chance to compete for playoff spots in the über-competitive NFC, these dangerous teams might determine who’s in and who’s out at season’s end.