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Four Burning Questions About the 2018 Schedule

Posted Apr 16, 2018

How many prime-time assignments will the Buccaneers get? When will the bye week fall? That and more as we eagerly await the release of the NFL's 2018 regular-season schedule

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers expect to find out their fall plans this week as the NFL prepares to reveal its full 256-game regular-season schedule. The release of the schedule will answer many questions for the Buccaneers, perhaps most notably, Where does it all begin?

One thing that's not in doubt: Exactly when Buccaneer fans will be able to get their hands on tickets for those soon-to-be-determined games. For the first time, single-game tickets for every Buccaneer home game will go on sale as soon as the schedule is released.

The Buccaneers (and their fans) already know who they will be playing this coming fall. That was determined the moment the 2017 season ended. In addition to the usual home-and-away combinations with division foes Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans, the Bucs will also face every team in the NFC East (Philadelphia and Washington at home, Dallas and the N.Y. Giants on the road) and every team in the AFC North (Cleveland and Pittsburgh at home, Baltimore and Cincinnati on the road). The final two matchups, which were determined by the final standings of 2017, are with San Francisco (home) and Chicago (away).

That's the extent of our current knowledge about the Buccaneers' 2018 roster of games. The rest is in the hands of the NFL's schedule-makers, with their algorithms and supercomputers. We'll soon know a lot more, and some of the more pressing questions about Tampa Bay's latest schedule will be answered. Such as:

1. How much prime-time exposure will this team get?

The Buccaneers had two nationally-broadcast games last year and are nearly certain to get at least one in 2018. That's because the Thursday Night Football schedule usually includes almost every team in the league. The Bucs played host to a Week Five Thursday-night affair with New England last year, but they also had a second national showcase, playing a Week 15 Monday Night Football game against Atlanta at Raymond James Stadium.

Will the Bucs get a Monday night invite in 2018? It's certainly possible, but the team's 5-11 record in 2017 will not help that cause. The team was coming off a promising 9-7 campaign in 2016 when they were chosen for that ESPN showcase a year ago. The league tries to get as many marquee matchups on Monday night as it can, so the Buccaneers hopes of being included probably hinge on if their own belief that they remain on the verge of serious playoff contention is shared by others.

A losing record the previous season doesn't automatically disqualify a team from MNF consideration. There were seven teams on last year's Monday night slate that had come in under .500 in 2016, including the 3-13 Chicago Bears. The Eagles made it on twice (nice prognostication by the schedulers on that one) despite a 7-9 mark the year before. It helps to have a heated and/or historic rivalry – the Bears shared the spotlight with Minnesota while the 6-9-1 Cincinnati Bengals came on to play Pittsburgh. Therefore, the Bucs' best chance to land a Monday night game will probably be in a divisional matchup with any one of the three reigning playoff teams in the NFC South.

In fact, the Buccaneers followed just that formula to Monday night in 2016. Despite going 6-10 in 2015, Tampa Bay got a Monday night game at Carolina in Week Six (and won, 17-14). If the same thing happens this year, it will mark the first time the Buccaneers have been on the MNF schedule for three straight seasons since they were selected in seven straight years from 1998-04. Obviously, that was during the franchise's sustained run of playoff appearances, and they got a total of 12 Monday night dates in that span.

2. Where will the bye week fall?


It's impossible to know ahead of time when a bye week would be most beneficial for a team. If your quarterback were to suffer, say, a throwing-shoulder injury in Week Five, you might really appreciate a bye in Week Six.

All things being equal, however, the later byes are generally considered more favorable. Every passing game brings more of a possibility of injury, and there is a general wear and tear that builds up on a roster as the season progresses. Last year the bye weeks were spread between Weeks Five and 11, meaning some teams got their time off in mid-October while others got to wait almost until Thanksgiving.

The Buccaneers appeared to get the most favorable bye-week draw last year, as the original schedule had them in a group of six that was taking Week 11 off. However, Hurricane Irma blew those plans away; the Bucs' original opener in Miami was postponed until November 19 because the Dolphins also conveniently had a Week 11 bye. As such, Tampa Bay ended up with an unplanned, sudden and essentially useless Week One bye.

The Buccaneers couldn't be blamed for wanting a do-over on the late bye. Will they get it? Well, even with last year's bye assignment, the Bucs are still somewhat due. That Week 11 vacation would have marked the first time since 2008 that the team had been given the latest possible bye. For most of the last decade, the Bucs have been an early-bye team. Here's the breakdown:

Season Bucs' Bye Bye Range
2017 Week 11* Weeks 5-11
2016 Week 6 Weeks 4-13
2015 Week 6 Weeks 4-11
2014 Week 7 Weeks 4-12
2013 Week 5 Weeks 4-12
2012 Week 5 Weeks 4-11
2011 Week 8 Weeks 5-11
2010 Week 4 Weeks 4-10
2009 Week 8 Weeks 4-10
2008 Week 10 Weeks 4-10

(* Bye actually occurred in Week One due to the postponement of the season opener caused by Hurricane Irma.)

3. Will there be any particularly taxing road swings?

That rescheduled Miami game not only erased the Bucs' bye but also created an unfortunate run of three straight road games. Between the end of October and the second week of December, Tampa Bay only played at home one time. The Bucs had fallen to the fringes of the playoff race by that point anyway, but a three-week road excursion increased the level of difficulty for the team at a tough time.

The schedule-makers can't be blamed for that one, obviously, but similar stretches of road games do sometimes occur. The Bucs famously had one in 2005, when they hit the playoff stretch run and faced three road games in a span of 14 days at New Orleans, Carolina and New England. The Bucs met that challenge well, winning the two critical division contests to put themselves in the driver's seat for the NFC South title. They subsequently locked that title down with home games against Atlanta and New Orleans to end the regular season.

Last year, three-game road swings were downright common on the schedule. The Buccaneers got theirs accidentally, but seen other teams were scheduled for such an extended time away from home. San Francisco got their three-week trip out of the way early, in Weeks 4-6, followed by similar stretches for Atlanta and Denver in Weeks 7-9. Cincinnati was next from Weeks 9-11, while Minnesota, New England and Philadelphia all did the same thing from Weeks 12-14.

That seems like an unusually high number of three-game road trips across the NFL landscape. There were only two such occurrences (Green Bay and Washington) the year before.

If the Bucs do get a run of three straight road games on their 2018 schedule, they would probably prefer to have it fall where it landed for Cincinnati last year. A long run on the road has to be balanced by a bunch of home games, and that would be a plus during a playoff stretch run. After the Bengals went on the road from Weeks 9-11 last year, they got to play the next three, and four of their last six, at home.

4. Will the intra-division schedule be frontloaded, backloaded or spread evenly across the campaign?

Last year, the answer to this question was backloaded, to the extreme. The Buccaneers didn't play a single game against an NFC South foe until Week Eight, and four of their last six contests were against the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. In fact, other than an early Carolina-New Orleans game, there wasn't another matchup of two NFC South teams until November.

To some extent, division games are always going to lean towards the back half of the schedule, thanks to a specific scheduling decision the NFL made in 2010. Since then, the league has made a point of filling the Week 17 schedule with all divisional matchups in the hopes of creating more meaningful games in the final weekend. It certainly worked in the NFC South last year, with the title still up for grabs as the Saints came to Tampa and the Panthers went to Atlanta. The Saints played their starters against an eliminated Buccaneers team, and that made Tampa Bay's win a bit more meaningful.

It's not unusual, in fact, for teams to finish with two straight games against division opponents. Eight of the 32 teams did so last year, and the Bucs have had that sort of scheduling end-game each of the last two years.

Still, last year's NFC South divisional schedule tilted more towards the end than usual. In 2016, the Bucs had one divisional game in each month before finishing with other three in December. In 2015, Tampa Bay met each of its divisional foes once in the first seven games and only had one NFC South opponent in the final three weeks. The 2014 Buccaneers were done with two-thirds of their divisional schedule by Week 10.

There's also the possibility of drawing an NFC South foe to open the season, which the Bucs would do if they continue to follow a recent pattern. In each of the past three even-numbered years (2012, 2014, 2016), the Buccaneers have played another NFC South team in Week One.

The Bucs have to play those six games at some point, and it probably isn't particularly crucial where they fall on the schedule. Last year's backloaded divisional play had the makings of a dramatic finish, though Tampa Bay didn't end up in the title race. A more evenly-distributed division schedule would probably be preferable, giving the Buccaneers an early opportunity to measure themselves against their NFC South foes and then a chance later in the season to go head-to-head with something on the line.