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Buccaneers emerge from Monday night as best team in flawed NFC

The only real takeaway coming out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' latest win is that they're the best team in a flawed conference.

The Buccaneers just outlasted a one-win New York Giants squad that did everything possible to blow this potential upset. Tampa also got to spend Sunday watching an assortment of rivals underwhelm and disappoint. As good as the Bucs have looked this season, it's difficult not to think they're benefitting greatly from the company they keep in the NFC.

The Bucs were supposed to beat the Giants by far more than a score of 25-23.

Tampa came into this game riding the highs of blowout wins over the Las Vegas Raiders and Green Bay Packers, all of which elicited plenty of talk about whether the Buccaneers had an argument as the best team in the league. We can pump the brakes on that debate for the time being. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs have turned that topic into a two-team conversation.

Yes, the Bucs did what they had to do against a lesser team on Monday night. They also left the distinct impression that there's plenty more left to do before we know exactly what this team is all about.

"We did not find energy fast enough and we got hit in the mouth," said Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians as he referred to his team falling behind 14-3 in the first half. "Credit to (Giants head coach) Joe Judge. He had his team ready and they played their tails off. But we made enough plays to win the game and you never apologize for winning."

Let's make one thing clear before we dig deeper into this: There's a lot to like about Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have the greatest quarterback in history in Tom Brady. They've got an abundance of talent on offense -- a unit that is only going to improve with the arrival of wide receiver Antonio Brown and healthier versions of Pro Bowl wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin -- and their front seven is as stout as any bunch in the game. When this team gets it rolling, it's a pleasure to watch.

The problem is that Tampa Bay, now 6-2, hasn't really found the consistency that is critical to Super Bowl contenders. It looked awful in a season-opening loss to New Orleans. Brady looked lost on the final fourth-down play of a defeat at Chicago. This latest win easily could've been a loss, as well, if Giants second-year quarterback Daniel Jones didn't have such a penchant for turnovers or an inability to connect with open receivers racing downfield.

Combine these issues with the overall problems in the NFC and it's easy to see why Tampa Bay is becoming a such a trendy pick to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium. The NFC is completely confounding these days. The East is a train wreck. The Packers' defense is becoming a problem again, while the Bears' offense never stopped being one. Seattle is winning with the worst defense in the Pete Carroll era, New Orleans has become quite ordinary without Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas, and San Francisco is so banged up that it's safe to start writing off the reigning NFC champs.

For all the talk about the depth in divisions like the NFC West -- where the Arizona Cardinals have blossomed into a frisky bunch -- no team is better built to dominate this conference than Tampa. The real question is when the Buccaneers will hit their stride and start pulling away from the pack.

"It's not hard to grind," said Brady, when asked about fighting for this victory. "We should be able to do that. We didn't play the way we're capable of playing. We're going to have to play a lot better than that. I'm glad we got the win. We're going to have to keep learning and understanding what we have to do better and execute better."

The obvious reason behind Tampa Bay's inconsistency is simple reality. We live in a world that has been plagued by COVID-19 for the last eight months and a team like this was destined to endure its share of ups and downs. As gifted a leader as Brady has been throughout his Hall of Fame career, it still takes time for new faces to acclimate themselves to different surroundings. We're just now seeing Brady's buddy in New England, tight end Rob Gronkowski, having more of an impact on this offense, while running back Leonard Fournette signed right at the start of the season.

It will be just as intriguing to see what happens when Brown hits the field. He's the wildest of wild cards, but he and Brady clearly have some kind of valuable rapport. Their chemistry was obvious during the one game Brown played for New England last season – before the Patriots released him and his life turned upside down – and Arians also has a history with the volatile wide receiver. (Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh when Brown started his career with that franchise.) If Brown is focused and on his best behavior, the Bucs will have the best receiving corps in football.

It certainly felt like Tampa could've used some of infusion of energy in this win over the Giants. Maybe this was one of those games where the Buccaneers were looking past their opponent. They do have a huge Sunday night rematch with the Saints this coming weekend, which is a contest that will have huge implications for the division crown. Tampa has known from Day 1 that all roads to a Super Bowl will go through New Orleans at some point.

The good news for the Bucs is that they're winning the games they need to win. For all the people who want to celebrate what the 6-1 Seahawks are doing behind Russell Wilson these days, the fact is Seattle has played four teams with only two wins thus far. Their defense is so unreliable right now that Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, the same player who has suddenly bottomed out over the last month, threw for 397 yards against them. That's almost 35 percent of the passing yards Newton has amassed all season.

Brady, on the other hand, has effectively ended the debate about who was more responsible for all that success New England enjoyed over the last two decades. The Patriots are floundering at 2-5 after winning 12 games with him under center in 2019. The Buccaneers knew they were getting a leader and a legend when he signed with them in March. So far, Brady has been everything that organization had hoped he'd be.

The next month will tell us a lot about how high this team will rise. Along with seeing the Saints this coming weekend, the Buccaneers will face the Rams and Chiefs over the next four weeks. They won't be beating any of those squads with the way they played on Monday night.

As Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said, "(I) can't lie -- they hit us in the mouth in that first half."

That tends to happen once opponents recognize how dangerous a team has become. The Buccaneers also can count on more games where nobody is going to give them an inch. It's safe to assume Tampa Bay will learn quite a bit from all its ups and downs in the first half of this season. Their second-half success will be determined by how well they apply those lessons and ultimately separate themselves even more from the pack.

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