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Divisional Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

How could the Buccaneers enter 2021 as anything other than NFC South favorites?

The defending Super Bowl champions bring back their entire roster while the rest of the division has a fair share of question marks.

Today is the three-month anniversary of the Buccaneers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in franchise history. In the three months since, they’ve brought back all of their starters and even added some depth along the way. The team is intent on going for two, and it is set up in every way to do so. There’s a reason they’re still being talked about as potential Super Bowl favorites in year two of Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, despite how hard it is to win back-to-back championships—in any sport.

So, imagine the confusion that went through my head when I saw this headline on Thursday night:

“No, the Bucs shouldn’t be talked up as 2021 NFC South favorites”

Huh? The team that just won the Super Bowl in dominant fashion after running through three road playoff games has its entire roster back and will actually have an offseason this year after not really having one last year and they shouldn’t be favorites in the NFC South?

There has to be some solid reasoning behind this, right? Well, let’s dive in, shall we?

“It’s easy to explain why the Bucs are favored so heavily — they’re the ones tossing the Lombardi Trophy between boats and enjoying avocado tequila at the Kentucky Derby. But it took a lot of luck for them to get here.”

OK, let’s talk about luck. Sure, the Bucs had some luck on their way to winning the Super Bowl. But every championship team ever has had some luck along the way. Tampa Bay’s luck largely felt like it was on the injury front, with Vita Vea being the only impact player to miss a significant chunk of time. Not every team is so fortunate.

But I don’t think this writer is referring to the Bucs’ injury luck here. Let’s see what they’ve got on their mind.

“Tampa Bay did what every contender hopes for and got hot at the right time, cruising into the playoffs off of a four-game winning streak. They survived two wins against teams hamstrung by fraught quarterback situations to narrowly beat the Packers in the NFC title game before running the injury-ravaged Chiefs off the field during the Super Bowl. If Taylor Heinicke hadn’t posted a quarterback rating 17 points below league average, the Bucs wouldn’t have made it out of the wild-card round. If Drew Brees hadn’t thrown three interceptions in a meltdown while Jared Cook gave the game away with a second-half fumble, things look very different. Losing one of Taysom Hill or Latavius Murray, but not both, might have given the Saints enough of a physical edge to avoid putting so much on Brees in the first place.”

Whew. There’s a lot to unpack here. Yes, the Bucs did do what every team hopes—and needs—to do to win a championship. They got hot at the right time. But the subtext here is all sorts of wild to me. Are we saying they did so as a result of luck? Or was it maybe more the fact they finally found a groove after a late bye week, one that they could’ve used earlier considering the offense had to come together on the fly due to the lack of a true offseason.

Then, we get on to the meat of the first part of this argument: the teams Tampa Bay played on the way to its championship. First, there was the Washington Football Team. Pointing out Taylor Heinicke’s quarterback rating when he was one of the only reasons that game was even close? Are we kidding? Washington did well to get to the playoffs, but as a 7-9 division winner, its reward was playing the top Wild Card team. The Bucs earned the right to play the weakest division champion and then looked the part of an 11-5 team playing a 7-9 team. There’s not really any doubt about who was the better team and who deserved to move on.

Next, the New Orleans Saints (remember, this is coming from The Saints Wire). We’re now playing the “if” game with turnovers? If Drew Brees hadn’t thrown three interceptions, if Jared Cook wouldn’t have fumbled, if one of Tayson Hill or Latavius Murray was healthy... What are we doing here? Hill and Murray weren’t fit to play and, to be fair, that’s bad luck for the Saints. But surely the argument here isn’t “well if one team hadn’t won the turnover battle 4-0, they might not have won.” To put this game solely on Brees and Cook rather than crediting Todd Bowles’ defensive game plan and the performance of the Buccaneer defense is just silly. Not to mention, grouping New Orleans’ quarterback situation in with Washington’s as “fraught” sure is one way to shade the best signal-caller your franchise has ever seen.

Now for the Packers, a team that the Bucs “narrowly” beat... Yes, Tampa Bay won by five. But what did you want this team to do against Green Bay, the 13-3 top seed in the NFC playing in front of one of the loudest atmospheres of the year (thanks to COVID-19)? Did the Bucs need to win by 28 (again) to prove that they weren’t just riding luck? Give me a break. The Bucs played a competitive game with one of the league’s best teams and came away with the win. What are we arguing here again?

And then there was the “injury-ravaged” Chiefs. Missing their two offensive tackles definitely hurt and the game likely would’ve been much closer had they been healthy. But can you definitively say the Chiefs win the game with them in the lineup? No, you can’t. Those two tackles aren’t the reason Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Darrel Williams dropped key passes and they’re definitely not the reason that the defense couldn’t stop holding Buccaneer receivers on the way to allowing 31 points. Tampa Bay dominated the game and deserved to raise that trophy high at the end of the night.

Yes, the Bucs got hot at the right time. And they made their way through four good teams to win the Super Bowl. No, they didn’t luck their way to a championship, therefore rendering them fraudulent division favorites going into 2021. These excuses are hilarious.

“There are parallel timelines where Tom Brady’s legacy is in jeopardy after an 8-8 dud away from New England, and others where the Bucs are seen as desperate, trendy Super Bowl contenders trying to fix the flaws they found in January. It’s just not the timeline we inhabit. Credit to the Bucs for hitting their stride when they needed it most, and for bringing back so many key players from their title run. Their front office has done a great job keeping that core together while adding possible upgrades. But at the end of the day the team they’ve held together finished the season at 11-5 with coin-flip wins against the 4-12 Falcons, the 6-10 Giants, and 7-9 Chargers.”

Hahahahaha. What? If the Bucs hadn’t won all those games, they would’ve had a worse record. That’s A+ logic, to be sure, but I’m still not clear on how that disqualifies them from being the favorite in the NFC South going into this year. And speaking of this year, let’s take a look at the rest of the division, shall we?

“Compare that to the Saints, who built a team around Brees that won the NFC South an unprecedented four consecutive seasons from 2017 to 2020. That roster’s top-end talent (which has gone 8-1 without Brees the last two years) remains intact, but their depth is facing legitimate scrutiny after so many contributors were lost against an equally-unprecedented depressed salary cap. Enough changes have taken place around the division to make it anyone’s game, no matter who eventually won their championship rings. We’ll see how it shakes out in the fall. Maybe Jameis Winston is able to make the throws Brees couldn’t to keep the Saints in contention, while cutting down on the turnovers that got him punted out of Tampa Bay.”

Yes, the Saints have won four consecutive division titles. Yes, there’s still the makings of a good roster there in New Orleans. But to act like replacing Brees with Jameis Winston is going to guarantee success and keep the team on top is awfully presumptuous. I like Winston and have defended him for years, but until he proves that he can cut down on the turnovers, you’re not going to convince me that he’s an immediate upgrade over Brees. And yes, I know the 2020 version of Brees was very much facing some limitations. But if your best argument is “maybe” a quarterback doesn’t turn the ball over at the same high rate that he has for five years, you’re going to lose me a bit.

“Maybe the Panthers’ new quarterback and improved supporting cast make some noise, while the Falcons go all-in on an offense seeking to make the most of Matt Ryan’s golden years.”

Again, the hypotheticals are off the charts. “Maybe” Sam Darnold turns into something. It’s certainly possible. But that’s what we’re clinging to as a reason against the Bucs being division favorites? And for the Falcons, we’re going with “maybe” Matt Ryan plays like his 2016 MVP self?

“So it makes sense, on the surface, for Tampa Bay to be getting so much attention. With so much continuity in place and fresh memories from their last — surprisingly dominant — win, they’re going to get their flowers. But while the Bucs are relishing their time on top of the mountain, they may need even more luck than they enjoyed last year to remain kings of the hill.”

That last sentence there... It definitely takes some luck to win a championship. It also takes a great deal more to go back-to-back. But to act like the Bucs, with the loaded roster they have, will need more luck to win the division (we’re not even talking about the Super Bowl!) than a team with a question mark at quarterback and two teams that are still trying to rebuild and retool? Again, what are we doing here?

Also, if you’ll remember, this article was titled “No, the Bucs shouldn’t be talked up as 2021 NFC South favorites” and now we’re ending it with “it makes sense that the Bucs are getting the attention and being looked at as favorites.” This was quite the roller coaster ride to reach that conclusion.

I understand that the Bucs aren’t shoe-ins to win the division. No team is. Things can go wrong and other teams can emerge. That’s why the games are played. But if we’re basing our 2021 favorites on how things stand right now, how could the Buccaneers enter the 2021 season as anything other than favorites to win the division?

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