Worst team in the NFC South?

Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman and the Buccaneers have lost five consecutive games. Jim Brown/US Presswire

The standings say the Carolina Panthers are the worst team in the NFC South. I say, they’re not even close.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have worked really hard to clinch that honor, at least for the moment.

Yeah, I know Carolina is 3-8 and Tampa Bay is 4-7. But this isn’t about finite numbers -- at least not until Sunday when the two teams play and the Panthers have a chance to draw mathematically even with the Bucs.

The Panthers have an offense and they have lots of hope for the future. The Bucs are on a losing streak that looks like it could reach infinity.

When they meet Sunday at Raymond James Stadium it won’t hold the star power of a Saints/Falcons game, but it could tell the story of two NFC South teams headed in very different directions. The Bucs also play the Panthers in Charlotte on Christmas Eve. If the Bucs haven’t stopped their free fall by then, things will get really ugly in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs are on a five-game losing streak and not even quarterback Josh Freeman can put his thumb on the reasons why. Hey, let's take it one step further since Freeman and the Bucs have opened that door -- "Fire those cannons,'' Josh!''

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way at all. This was supposed to be the season in which the Bucs joined the Saints and Falcons. But somewhere on the ride to the penthouse, it looks like coach Raheem Morris and his team have taken a very wrong turn.

Even before the losing streak started, the Bucs weren’t playing like they were supposed to. Tampa Bay was supposed to take a huge step forward after going 10-6 last season with the league’s youngest roster.

The Bucs didn’t make a lot of offseason changes and seemed to be going on the logical assumption that everyone would be a year better. There’s nothing wrong with a youth movement (and even an occasional Albert Haynesworth) as long as coaches and players keep it moving in a positive direction, even if the schedule is difficult. But it’s hard to find any positives with the Bucs right now, and punter Michael Koenen doesn't count.

Freeman, who threw 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions last season, hasn’t been able to hit targets. Mike Williams, who looked like a No. 1 receiver as a rookie, has turned into the second coming of Michael Clayton. LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 1,000 yards in half a season, might need a season and a half to hit that mark again, which might coincide with the moment he finally learns to pass block.

People talked about Freeman, Williams and Blount as "The Triplets" last year. I still think Freeman has a world of potential, but it’s looking like he might end up being the only child. On defense, the Bucs have invested a lot of draft picks and money invested in their defensive line.

But this defense still appears to have the same track marks on its back as it did in the final days of the Jon Gruden era. Speaking of Gruden, the Bucs fired him after he lost his final four games to finish 9-7 in 2008.

If Morris ends up losing 10 games in a row (or anything close to that), do you seriously think he’s going to get a contract extension? He’s sort of up for one. When the Bucs hired Morris in 2009, they gave him a two-year deal with an option for two more. The Bucs picked up that option. But it’s hard to imagine the Bucs letting Morris coach the final year, unless his team suddenly finishes on an upswing.

In case you haven’t heard, the Bucs have a little problem selling tickets. Heading into 2012 with a marketing slogan of “Come see our lame-duck head coach and a bunch of guys who really underachieved last year’’ probably won’t cause a surge at the box office.

Besides, you don’t head into a season with a lame-duck coach. Just ask the Panthers. They did it in 2010 with John Fox and the only thing they got out of that was Ron Rivera as the head coach and the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

The Panthers used that pick in April to select Cam Newton. As it turned out, those pre-draft scouting reports that were filled with lots of doubt now translate into "Big, strong guy, who can throw, run and even make Steve Smith smile."

Yeah, three wins don’t make a season. But four, five or six victories and visions of a healthy Jon Beason (maybe even a healthy Thomas Davis) sure would fire up a fan base that hasn’t seen many good things since Jan. 10, 2009. That was the night Jake Delhomme celebrated what reportedly was his 34th birthday (the reality was his right arm turned 68 that day) with five interceptions (and a fumble) in an embarrassing home playoff loss to Arizona.

The Panthers followed that up with a contract extension for Delhomme, whose right arm went on to turn 78 before his 35th birthday. That set the stage for a 2010 season in which Fox pointed fingers at ownership and the front office, hazed Jimmy Clausen (“Brian St. Pierre is better than you’’ and “I can make Timmy Tebow into a better quarterback than you, Mr. Notre Dame pedigree’’) and completely forgot to coach is team.

The Panthers went 2-14.

They hired Rivera. They drafted Newton, who came out of the gate putting up 400-yard games. With Beason and Davis hurt, the Panthers have been horrible on defense.

Even while losing, the Panthers have made their fans feel like they’re winning. Newton and the offense are flat-out entertaining and that’s brought tons of hope for the future. Rivera’s a defensive guru and a draft and a few free agents could fix that side of the ball.

Funny, but the Panthers appear to be headed for what the Bucs once were supposed to be and the Bucs seem to be headed for where the Panthers just were.

They’ll intersect Sunday and the result will tell us as much about the bottom of the NFC South as a game between the Falcons and Saints does at the top.

If both teams are 4-8 by the end of Sunday afternoon, the Panthers will have clearly soared past by the Bucs. Or, depending on how you look at it, the Bucs will have fallen lower than the Panthers.