Up three games, Tampa Bay Buccaneers in rare driver's seat in NFC South but have 'long way to go'

TAMPA, Fla. -- With their road win over the Indianapolis Colts last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers improved to 8-3 and grabbed a three-game lead in the NFC South for the first time since Week 13 in the 2007 season.

The Bucs have one remaining game against the Atlanta Falcons (Sunday), one against the New Orleans Saints (Dec. 19) and two against the Carolina Panthers (Dec. 26 and Jan. 9), but barring a meltdown, they should clinch the division, and maybe more, as they are currently the No. 3 seed in the NFC and tied for the second-best record in the NFL.

“I mean it's either going to [be] you can lock it up or be in a dogfight all the way to the end,” coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday, while implying that this race isn’t over.

“The Saints have had a ton of injuries. We've had some injuries also. But there's still 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, and Atlanta is a game out of the playoffs. Three-game lead right now -- we've got a long way to go."

Here’s a closer look at what has happened in the division, starting with the Falcons, whom the Bucs defeated 48-25 in Week 2.

Atlanta Falcons (5-6)

The Bucs’ goal against Atlanta is to make them one dimensional, and that starts with stopping Cordarrelle Patterson, who’s enjoying a breakout season at age 30, averaging 91.1 yards from scrimmage per game -- which is tied for 12th in the NFL through 12 weeks.

It’s also limiting rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who has become a focal point of the Falcons’ offense since their first meeting in Week 2. His 661 receiving yards ranked third among tight ends through Week 12.

Quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown five interceptions in his past three games. On the season, he is averaging just 237.9 passing yards per game, his lowest since 2010. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who stepped away from the team to focus on his mental health, has not returned, so they’ve had to lean more heavily on Russell Gage as a No. 1 receiver. He scored his first touchdown since Week 7 last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Defensively, they’re still struggling to disrupt the quarterback. Dante Fowler leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones also missed the last game with a shoulder injury. Cornerback A.J. Terrell has shown growth from Year 1 to Year 2, but as a whole, the Falcons’ defense is giving up 27.5 points per game -- second most in the NFL. Overall, they need more pieces.

New Orleans Saints (5-7)

While quarterback Trevor Siemian beat the Bucs in Week 8 after Jameis Winston went down with a torn ACL, he has been unable to replicate that magic since, going 0-4. His replacement, Taysom Hill, had a disastrous outing against the Dallas Cowboys during a Thursday Night Football loss, 27-17, when he threw four interceptions.

But it’s not just the quarterback position ravaged by injuries. The Saints were without defensive end Marcus Davenport, running back Alvin Kamara, left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk on Thursday night, in addition to having wide receiver Michael Thomas and cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson on injured reserve.

Their defense -- once considered one of the better defenses in the league -- has taken a tumble, too. In the four games heading into Thursday, they had given up an average of 30.25 points per game, fifth most in the league, whereas in Weeks 1-8, they were surrendering 18.29 points per game, fourth best. Still, they’ve had the Bucs’ number, even with quarterback Tom Brady, outscoring them 128-83 in four games over the past two seasons (including the 2020 divisional playoff), which means they can never be counted out.

Carolina Panthers (5-7)

The Panthers started off 3-0 before a four-game losing streak. They did manage to upset the team with the best record (9-2) in the NFL in the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10.

Quarterback Sam Darnold went on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury after Week 9. The Panthers then started P.J. Walker against the Cardinals, before re-signing Cam Newton. Newton took over as the starter in Weeks 11 and 12, but he was then benched during the Week 12 loss to Washington after a poor start with Walker stepping in.

Their offensive line continues to struggle, giving up 31 sacks so far this season, tied for sixth most in the NFL. Running back Christian McCaffrey -- the focal point of Carolina’s offense, even with all the speed they have at wide receiver -- is out for the season with an ankle injury. The Panthers are 4-3 with him and 1-4 without him this year.

Defensively, they are giving up 21.08 yards per game -- eighth in the league. But they did surrender 198 yards on the ground to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, 190 against Washington in Week 11 and 151 to the New England Patriots in Week 9. They’ve also gotten to a point where coach Matt Rhule is benching healthy players, like defensive tackle Derrick Brown, their 2020 first-round draft pick, and an irate Brian Burns blew up at teammates on the sideline against Miami.

Cornerback Donte Jackson was also just placed on injured reserve because of a groin injury. They are using Stephon Gilmore -- acquired midseason from the Patriots to help fill the shoes of injured first-round pick Jaycee Horn -- more, but he’s working his way back from a quadriceps injury and has been primarily used on third downs.