After three games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are third in the NFC South. Not because they’ve lost more games than the rest, but because they’ve played one fewer game: they’re 2-1, while the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons are both 3-1.
On Thursday, the Bucs can join the NFC South lead by beating the New England Patriots on a short week. That’s less impossible than it would have been in previous years: the Patriots are 2-2 and seem completely incapable of limiting any offense. Jameis Winston could put up some very big numbers.
Regardless of what happens there, though, the Bucs have a real shot at the NFC South crown. That is: if their performance in week two and four is more indicative of their level of play than their terrible week three performance.
The Bucs have flaws, of course, but so do the Falcons and Panthers. See, for instance, Football Outsiders on the struggling Atlanta defense—a unit that was supposed to have been much-improved, but isn’t.
The Falcons, for all their team speed, are still wildly exploitable over the middle of the field. They allowed a 50.6% DVOA on passes marked "middle" through Week 3, as well as 10.2 passes per game targeted at tight ends, both among the bottom three in the league. And so, if you had Charles Clay catching five passes for 112 yards on seven targets in this one, you could read the statistical indicators.
No one in the NFC South looks dominant right now. The Panthers offense looks awful, while the Falcons don’t have much of a defense. The Panthers have a good defense and the Falcons a good offense, but neither is quite dominant. If the Bucs can start to string together wins, and if they can steadily improve as the season goes on, they should be able to win the NFC South.
And that, of course, would mean playoffs. For the first time in a decade.