The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are closing in on the midway point in their 2007 regular season.

So far, so good for the Bucs, who posted a 4-12 record last year but are off to a 4-3 start with nine games left to play in the regular season.

Tampa Bay has its sights set on winning the NFC South division, and that title is well within reach as the Bucs trail the 4-2 Carolina Panthers by just a half of a game heading into this weekend’s games.

Seven NFC teams have better records than Tampa Bay at this point in the season, but the Bucs will automatically make the playoffs and host a post-season contest if they win their division.

The bad news is the Bucs already have 11 players on injured reserve and several other key contributors, including wide receiver Michael Clayton (ankle), cornerback Brian Kelly (groin), running back Michael Pittman (ankle) and tight end Alex Smith (ankle) – banged up. It could be tough for the Bucs to continue to make a playoff push if injuries keep mounting.

However, the good news is Tampa Bay’s remaining schedule is favorable compared to its first seven games and the rest of the teams’ schedules in the NFC South division.

Listed below are the current records and remaining schedules for the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Buccaneers.

CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-2)
Indianapolis 6-0
@ Tennessee 4-2
Atlanta 1-6
@ Green Bay 5-1
New Orleans 2-4
San Francisco 2-4
@ Jacksonville 4-2
Seattle 4-3
Dallas 6-1
@Tampa Bay 4-3

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-3)
Jacksonville 4-2
Arizona 3-4
Bye
@ Atlanta 1-6
Washington 4-2
@ New Orleans 2-4
@ Houston 3-4
Atlanta 1-6
@ San Francisco 2-4
Carolina 4-2

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (2-4)
@ San Francisco 2-4
Jacksonville 4-2
St. Louis 0-7
@ Houston 3-4
@ Carolina 4-2
Tampa Bay 4-3
@ Atlanta 1-6
Arizona 3-4
Philadelphia 2-4
@ Chicago 3-4

ATLANTA FALCONS (1-6)
Bye
San Francisco 2-4
@ Carolina 4-2
Tampa Bay 4-3
Indianapolis 6-0
@ St. Louis 0-7
New Orleans 2-4
@ Tampa Bay 4-3
@ Arizona 3-4
Seattle 4-3

Although the Panthers currently are in first place, they easily have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the South. Carolina has already had its bye week and is without starting quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Panthers’ final 10 regular season opponents have posted a combined record of 38-26, and seven of those teams currently have winning records. The Bucs also defeated the Panthers 20-7 in Carolina back in Week 4 and host their division rival in the regular season finale on Dec. 30. However, given the fact that the Panthers have a brutal schedule down the stretch and must survive it without their starting signal caller, there’s a strong chance Carolina will already be out of the playoff hunt when that contest rolls around.

Count the Falcons out of the playoff hunt and in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. The face of their franchise is a convicted felon and heading to jail and Atlanta’s locker room is starting to turn on new head coach Bobby Petrino and the Falcons front office after a 1-6 start. The Falcons’ final nine opponents have posted a 29-30 record, and five of those teams have winning records. Tampa Bay has a chance to officially put Atlanta out of its misery with two of its remaining games being against the Falcons. But there’s a strong chance the Falcons will implode before then. 

While the Panthers own first place in the NFC South division right now, don’t be surprised if the New Orleans Saints, who started the season 0-4, turn out to be the team that competes with the Buccaneers for the division title. Five of the first six teams New Orleans faced this season currently have winning records, but only three of the Saints’ remaining 10 opponents can say that. In fact, New Orleans’ final 10 opponents have posted a combined record of just 26-40. The Saints are 2-4, but don’t count them out of the playoff picture yet. Tampa Bay defeated New Orleans 31-14 in Week 2, but the Bucs could see a different Saints clubs when these two teams meet again in New Orleans on Dec. 2.

The Buccaneers probably couldn’t ask for a better remaining schedule than the one they will play down the stretch. Tampa Bay’s final nine opponents have posted a combined record of 24-34, and only three of those teams have winning records. The Bucs managed to put together a 4-3 record despite the fact that five of their first seven opponents have winning records. One of the negative aspects of Tampa Bay’s remaining nine games is four of its last seven contests are on the road. Still, the Buccaneers, who are 2-0 in their division, have four more games against divisional opponents, which is good news since the division is considered weak this year. Even without some of their injured players, the Bucs have a strong chance to go into their bye week with a 6-3 record as long as they can continue to play well at home, where they’re 3-0 this season. That basically means Tampa Bay controls its own playoff destiny, which is a great position to be in almost midway through the season.

FLYNN'S PROJECTED 2007 NFC SOUTH DIVISION STANDINGS
Tampa Bay 10-6
New Orleans 8-8
Carolina 7-9
Atlanta 3-13

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