Breakdown: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to find out right away if their many offseason moves have helped close the gap in the NFC South. The Bucs play their three division foes (Panthers, Falcons and Saints) within the first five weeks of the schedule, including the opener at home against Carolina. The Bucs have a Week 7 bye (two weeks later than each of the past two seasons) and they should have a good idea of where they stand by then. A fast start could go a long way toward putting the Buccaneers in playoff contention, because the middle of the schedule potentially could be a little soft. But the Bucs need to be above .500 heading into the final four weeks of the season, because they have road games at Detroit and Carolina, followed by home games with Green Bay and New Orleans. Those final four opponents all have realistic chances to be playoff teams, and a cushion by the end of November could go a long way in helping the Bucs get to the postseason.
Complaint department: The Bucs get only one nationally televised game, a Thursday night contest in Atlanta. Fans have a legitimate gripe that the Bucs don't get much national attention. But the reality is the Bucs were 4-12 a year ago. If they are going to become media darlings, they need to win some games to start attracting some attention. That Atlanta game also will be the start of a scheduling rarity. The Bucs will play three straight games on the road. They follow the Atlanta game with a trip to Pittsburgh on Sept. 28, and follow that with an Oct. 5 game in New Orleans.
Lovie's homecoming: The Nov. 23 game at Chicago has a great storyline: Head coach Lovie Smith going against his former team. Smith will downplay the significance of the matchup. But Smith is a proud guy. He might not admit it, but he certainly remembers the Bears fired him after a 10-6 season in 2012. This game will mean a lot to Smith, and he will have the Bucs ready for this one. The bad news is that there is a very real chance this will be a cold-weather game. Nov. 16 at Washington and Dec. 14 at Carolina also could be cold-weather games. Historically, the Bucs have been dismal when playing in cold weather.
Buccaneers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Carolina, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, St. Louis, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 18, at Atlanta, 8:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Washington, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, New Orleans, 1 p.m.