After a 4-12 finish in 2013, the second time with that record over the last three seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will embark on a new era with Lovie Smith in place as head coach this year. The Buccaneers went 1-5 in division games last year, and the NFC South will be tough again this year. The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints should both be playoff contenders, and it’s fair to expect a rebound from the Atlanta Falcons after their own 4-12 finish last season.
The Buccaneers start the season with home games against Carolina and the St. Louis Rams, and both teams have potential injury issues at quarterback. Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton is dealing with a rib injury and is likely to be less than 100 percent for the season opener, and the Rams have already lost Sam Bradford to a torn ACL.
Tampa Bay’s next three games will come on the road, and their four games from Week 3-Week 6 will alternate between division opponents and teams from the AFC North. A Thursday night game against the Falcons and a Week 5 meeting with New Orleans will surround a trip to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Buccaneers will welcome the Baltimore Ravens to town in Week 6.
A Week 7 bye may be well-timed for Tampa Bay after a fairly difficult stretch of games, but the schedule gets a bit easier after that point. Their next four games come against teams that won five or fewer games in 2013, so we should find out quickly if the Buccaneers are a legit playoff contender. Things get tougher after that point, with three road games in a four-week stretch and the lone home game coming against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13.
If the Buccaneers have a chance at a playoff spot, two season-ending home games against the Green Bay Packers and the Saints put them in line to control their own destiny. That’s all any team can ask for, and I expect Smith to lead Tampa Bay to significant improvement in 2014.
2014 Prediction: 10-6