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BY IRA KAUFMAN

Right place, right time.

In any other NFC division, the 6-8 Buccaneers would be at least four games out of first place. Jason Licht would be ramping up his draft prospect evaluations and checking on his Senior Bowl reservations.

Instead, Tampa Bay remains in first place due to an astonishing case of Southern hospitality.

It would be shameful to waste such an opportunity. It would be a football crime to join the Panthers, Saints and Falcons below .500 while Tom Brady takes every snap under center.

The current standings suggest the Bucs are not a good football team. The disturbing scoring differential (minus-41) backs that up heading into Arizona on Christmas night.

The Cardinals are toast, playing out the string with a backup quarterback and a likely lame-duck coach, but the Bucs have dropped their last four road games by a combined margin of 99-45.

We just saw the Bucs at their best in a dazzling opening half against one of the NFL’s hottest teams. The Bengals were manhandled for 30 minutes before Brady unraveled. It was a classic case of the Bucs beating the Bucs, which used to be a weekly lament around here during a 12-year playoff drought marked by six head coaches and a few million empty seats.

Ira shares Keanu Neal’s perspective.

Still, there’s hope. You have to look hard, but there’s hope.

You have to put the league’s worst ground game behind you and focus on a potential home playoff game against the Cowboys. who have won three postseason games since 1997.

Three.

“It’s not where we want to be, unfortunately, but we’re still in first place,” Keanu Neal said after Sunday’s second-half meltdown. “The goals are still there. We’ve got to figure out who we’re going to be and what our identity is. Look ourselves in the mirror and go from there.”

The next few weeks will shape the future of this franchise. If the Bucs win the division and dispatch the Cowboys, the Glazers won’t be inclined to dismantle this group — beyond some assistant coaching changes. If Brady departs as a free agent in that scenario, it won’t be because Tampa Bay wasn’t interested in retaining him.

Owner Joel Glazer could preside over another roster-gutting, Ira says.

But if Tampa Bay fails to capture the NFC South, all bets are off and the heat is on.

The Glazers could implement a rebuilding plan on the order of the 2009 veteran purge that dispatched Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Warrick Dunn and Ike Hilliard.

The Bucs could decide to move on without Brady, seeking to get younger, faster and more physical. Licht would try to find a new face of the franchise under center. If that sounds harsh, think again.

If you don’t finish first in a horrid division WITH Brady, what confidence would you have when Brady turns 46 next August?

Missing the playoffs under these circumstances would be embarrassing.

For Brady, a losing record would be unprecedented. It’s unthinkable … but here we are.

“We’re 6-8, which is not where we want to be,” Neal said. “But we’re still where we want to be — in first place.”

For now.

Ira with his good friend and JoeBucFan.com draft guru Sean Sullivan, general manager of Bill Currie Ford and host of the Best In Class podcast. Sean will help you personally in any way he can. Just ask!!!

This content was originally published here.

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