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Five key games facing the Bucs

There are only 16 of them, so every game an NFL team plays is important. Some, though, are naturally more important than others. Those games often define a season and determine whether it was a success. Here, then, is a look at five games that could very well define the Buccaneers’ 2013 season.

New York Jets

TODAY, METLIFE STADIUM: The Buccaneers believe strongly the franchise’s five-year playoff drought will come to an end. This game offers a chance to get off on the right foot. The Jets are rebuilding, their quarterback situation a mess, and the Bucs have what is easily one of their most talented teams ever. That makes the Jets a beatable opponent. And the best way for any playoff contender to meet its expectations is to beat the teams it should beat. With a home game against the Saints and a road game against the Patriots looming in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, this might be the best chance for an early victory. Lose here and Tampa Bay could be looking at 0-3.

New Orleans Saints

SEPT. 15, RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM: Any game against a division opponent is big. Yet, the Bucs have to prove all over again they can compete with the Saints. Especially the defense. Tampa Bay was outscored 76-28 in two losses to New Orleans last year, so this game will say a lot about where the Bucs are in their efforts to correct some fatal defensive flaws. It could say a lot about the offense, too. The Saints are expected to struggle on defense. So, in addition to taking an early lead in the division race, the Bucs have a chance to prove they are once again an offensive force to be reckoned with.

Carolina Panthers

OCT. 24, RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM: This one comes in the middle of a difficult three-game stretch, between road games against Atlanta and Seattle. That the Bucs will play on a Thursday night just four days after facing the Falcons doesn’t make it any easier. Depending on what happens in their first two NFC South games, this one could offer the Bucs a chance to take command of the division title race or sneak back into it. No matter the scenario, it will mark the first time this season the Bucs play on national prime-time TV, and how they perform will say a lot about how the nation perceives them going forward.

Atlanta Falcons

NOV. 17, RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM: The Falcons went to the NFC title game last year and are clearly the class of the NFC South. The Bucs have split the season series each of the past two years and their loss last year was by one point. With the NFC South more or less up for grabs, the Bucs could be right in the mix when this game rolls around. They have a chance here to prove they’re capable of beating one of the league’s better teams.

St. Louis Rams

DEC. 22, EDWARD JONES DOME: The Rams came into Raymond James Stadium late last year and embarrassed the Bucs, 28-13, as QB Josh Freeman threw four interceptions. But neither Freeman nor the Bucs will be looking for revenge. If the 2013 season goes as they hope, this game could provide the Bucs with their first opportunity to secure a playoff berth, be it a wild-card spot or a division title. After division games, conference games are the most important for any team with playoff aspirations.

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