- There are still four remaining candidates for the two opponents that will finish out Tampa Bay's 2015 schedule
- Even missing several key parts, the Bucs' defense continues to show that it has become a dependable unit with a bright future in 2015
- The 2015 NFL draft order is becoming more clear but is not fully determined yet
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their Week 16 home game against the Green Bay Packers hoping to deny or delay the Packers' postseason entry and to record a momentum-building win of their own. That didn't happen, as the Bucs' offense struggled throughout the afternoon in a 20-3 loss that dropped the team to 2-13. The one certainty for the Buccaneers is that next Sunday's home game against the New Orleans Saints will be their last outing of 2014.
There are many other things about the Buccaneers in 2014 and 2015 that we can project, however, and in some cases we can do so with more clarity after Sunday's slate of games. Below are four things about the team – it's current situation, it's future or both – that seem significantly more clear after the results of Week 16.
1. Who's Up Next?
That's a two-part question. In the more immediate sense, the Buccaneers are set to play the Saints next, something they've known since April. However, Sunday's results gave some shape to the type of Saints team the Bucs will be welcoming to Raymond James Stadium. Specifically, it will be a team with no postseason berth on the line.
New Orleans' home loss to Atlanta coupled with Carolina's home win over Cleveland officially eliminated the Saints from the NFC South title hunt, and obviously there will be no Wild Card team from a division that won't have any team finish at .500 or better. The Saints dropped to 6-9, which equals Atlanta's record and stands a half-game behind the 6-8-1 Panthers. Next week, Carolina plays at Atlanta, which means that either the Falcons will improve to 7-9 or the Panthers will improve to 7-8-1. That record for Carolina would be better than the Saints' best-case scenario of 7-9, and simply tying the Falcons won't do the Saints any good because they lost twice to Atlanta this year. In other words, that Panthers-Falcons tilt will decide the division winner and the Saints have no more say in the matter. (And, yes, a tie in that game in the Georgia Dome would put the Panthers in the playoffs over the Saints, too.)
The Bucs wouldn't have had to guess what they will get next week from the visiting Saints if New Orleans was still in the divisional driver's seat. Drew Brees and his fellow core starters would obviously have played, and with a significant amount of motivation. Now – and some might consider this unfortunate – the Bucs will play a team with little on the line. That could affect the Saints' lineup decisions.
As for who comes after that, we're obviously talking about the 2015 campaign. And while we don't yet know when each game will be played, we do know almost everything there is to know about who and where. Almost.
The Buccaneers will play their usual NFC South schedule as well as four games each against the NFC East teams and the AFC South squads. That leaves the two games that are determined by end-of-the-year standings, with the Bucs matched up against the NFC North and NFC West teams that share the same spot in their respective division standings. Tampa Bay will finish fourth in the South and will thus play a home game against the fourth-place team from the North and an away game against the fourth-place team from the West.
The Bucs' NFC North opponent will be determined next Sunday. The 5-10 Chicago Bears will play at the 6-9 Minnesota Vikings. Obviously, Chicago will finish in fourth if they lose. However, if the Bears beat the Vikings, they'll send Minnesota into fourth place on a tiebreaker because they will have completed a head-to-head sweep this season.
In the West, the San Francisco 49ers dropped to 7-8 with their loss to San Diego on Saturday, but they remained a game ahead of the St. Louis Rams, who lost to the N.Y. Giants on Sunday. In Week 17, the Rams will play at Seattle, where they will be significant underdogs against perhaps the NFL's hottest team. The 49ers will play host to the Arizona Cardinals, who are 11-4 but struggled mightily against Seattle on Sunday night behind third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley. If the 49ers win and/or the Rams lose, then the Rams will finish fourth and the Bucs will play in St. Louis next year. However, if St. Louis were to pull off the upset in Seattle and the Cardinals were to take down the fading 49ers, San Francisco would fall into fourth place due to an inferior division record. In that scenario, the Bucs would book a trip to the Bay area next fall.
2. Is Tampa Bay's Defense Ready to Compete?
The answer to this question – yes! – is becoming more and more obvious every week. The Buccaneers labored through the first six weeks of this season as players slowly began to understand and become more comfortable in the scheme installed by Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier. Since returning from their bye week, however, the Buccaneers have proved almost every single week that they can hold their own defensively against any sort of competition.
Tampa Bay's defense had another encouraging outing on Sunday against the Packers
That was certainly evident on Sunday, when a Packers team that had been averaging approximately 31 points a game this season finished with just 20, padding the lead with seven points in the final three minutes. Tampa Bay was far from flawless on defense against Green Bay – there was not enough game-changing pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, there was only one takeaway and the Packers did top 400 yards – but it was quite encouraging, especially considering the circumstances.
Those circumstances: defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the team's most indispensable player, had just landed on injured reserve and middle linebacker Mason Foster left the game early with an Achilles tendon injury. The Bucs' opening defensive lineup included three undrafted players who had never made a start before the 2014 campaign – LE Jacquies Smith, SLB Danny Lansanah and SS Bradley McDougald – but it more than held its own against a quarterback who is favored to win the league's MVP award.
"I thought Tampa's defense was playing really well," said Green Bay Head Coach Mike McCarthy after the game. "I watched four or five weeks [and] was impressed with them on film. They did a good job up front. We knew their stunt game was going to be tough against our run game. They had some negative plays and corralled some football plays for them. I thought it was a good battle."
The Buccaneers' defense will have McCoy back in 2015 and will likely add a few more pieces that fit well in Smith's scheme. They've found some up-and-comers with the likes of McDougald and Smith. The consistency with which Tampa Bay's defense is keeping the team in games during the second half of the season is quite encouraging.
3. Did the Bucs' Draft Position Improve in Week 16?
The Oakland Raiders beat the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in what was considered a mild upset, and in the process the Raiders took themselves out of contention for the first-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Buccaneers would have gladly done something similar with a win over Green Bay Sunday, and that was the organization's single goal in Week 16. However, that does not have to stop us from examining what Sunday's loss to the Packers – combined with other results from around the NFL – did to the potential 2015 draft order.
The Buccaneers are now tied with the Tennessee Titans as the only remaining two-win teams. Oakland, Jacksonville and the New York Jets are all 3-12. Obviously, if either the Bucs or Titans lose and the other one wins next weekend, the losing team will have the first overall pick. If both the Bucs and Titans lose, the top pick would be determined by worst strength of schedule (the combined winning percentage of each team's list of opponents in 2014), and after 16 weeks that goes to the Buccaneers by a slim margin.
Losses by Minnesota, Baltimore and St. Louis "helped" the Bucs' strength of schedule (that is, made it worse) on Sunday; a win by Pittsburgh did not. On Monday, Buccaneers.com will take a more detailed look at how the different draft-order scenarios could play out in Week 17.
4. Will the Offensive Line be an Area of Particular Focus During the 2015 Offseason?
That seems inevitable at this point. This is not an indictment of any particular player, scheme or lineup decision, but the Bucs have not gotten the sort of production from their offensive front that they expected this season after overhauling a disappointing 2013 crew.
"You start up front first," said Smith. "We're not playing good enough football up front, pass blocking or running. I don't know how many yards we had rushing. It's tough when you have less than 20 yards rushing. And of course when you pass, you can't really protect. Quarterback-wise, there were some decisions we would like to have back, maybe getting rid of the ball a little bit quicker. It's a combination of it all right now. To just pinpoint and just blame it on one particular area just wouldn't be right."
Indeed, with only one game left in the 2014 season, the Bucs are going to be evaluation mode, not blame mode, very soon. And after Sunday's game brought the disappointment of the O-Line to a head, it's hard to imagine that not being one of the priorities of that evaluation. Offensive linemen don't usually have a stat line to describe their performances, but as Smith mentioned, they are often judged on the twin aspects of rushing yards gained and sacks allowed. On Sunday against the Packers, the Bucs rushed for 16 yards on 14 carries and Josh McCown absorbed seven sacks. That's the first time in franchise history that the team has gained less than 20 rushing yards and surrendered five or more sacks in the same game.
The Buccaneers may have the pieces they need on hand or they may need to make some changes before next season, but it will be difficult for the offense to progress, or even be evaluated properly, without improved play up front.
"When you say Josh [McCown struggled], the offensive line did, too," said Smith. "I mean, who is it? Who's the culprit? It's all of the above. Just to put a guy in there, our quarterback play, when you can't protect, you probably get the same type of results. When you can't run the football - the quarterback didn't have anything to do with that. Again, I'm going to say it was a great team on the other side. A team that has a chance to win the Super Bowl and they were a lot better than us."