Loss Costly On 2 Fronts: Division Race, Home Field
Sunday night's game was indoors. Still, the Bucs could feel a breeze over their shoulders. And maybe even a slight chill. After losing 23-20 to the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay (9-3) has a half-game lead over the fast-rushing Atlanta Falcons (8-3-1) in the NFC South race. Atlanta visits Raymond James Stadium next Sunday. The Saints (8-4) are one game behind the Bucs - and counting the season-opening 26-20 overtime win, they hold a sweep against Tampa Bay.

Sunday night's loss had more far-reaching implications than the NFC South race, though. Tampa Bay is tied with Philadelphia (9-3) and Green Bay (9-3) for the best record in the NFC. Ominously, the Eagles now control homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by leading in the first tiebreaker, a superior record in conference games (the Eagles are 8-0 within the NFC after Sunday's 10-3 win against St. Louis; all three of their losses were to AFC teams). Bucs fans need not be reminded of these facts: Tampa Bay has lost its past three games at Philadelphia (being outscored 72-22), including two opening-round playoff games. And the franchise never has won a game of any sort when the temperature dips below 40 degrees. Brrrrr!

First things first. The NFC South. ``You've got to win your division before anything else,'' Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said. Atlanta at Tampa Bay will be huge. The most compelling offensive player (Falcons quarterback Michael Vick) against the league's best defense (top- ranked Tampa Bay). In the last meeting, Tampa Bay smothered Atlanta 20-6 at the Georgia Dome on Oct. 6. Vick was a nonfactor and left with a second-half injury. It was the last time the Falcons lost. And it was the last time Vick has been a nonfactor. ``Jiminy Christmas, you can't help but tip your hat to Michael Vick,'' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. ``You can't help but be impressed with the Falcons, their offense and what Wade Phillips has done with that defense. They've got the players. They're clearly on the rise.''

So suddenly, we have the makings of a great horse race in the NFC South, which once was described as the weakest division in this season's realigned NFL. Now the NFC South might be the league's only division that sends three teams to the playoffs. ``You always shoot to win your division, but I think the most important thing is to get into the playoffs,'' Saints coach Jim Haslett said before the game. ``If you want to win the division, you [had] to win this game [Sunday night].''

Notably, the Saints already have been swept by the Falcons. ``When you beat a team twice like the Falcons beat us, what can you say?'' Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said. ``I'm not going to be stupid and and keep saying they're not a good team and they whipped our [butts] twice. We definitely have to watch our backs for them [Falcons] as well.''