We are about to reach the exact midway point of the NFL's 2018 season, the ninth week in a 17-week campaign. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will step onto that fulcrum on Sunday in Charlotte, sporting a 3-4 record and hoping to pivot their season upward. While turnovers have kept the Bucs and the NFL's top-ranked offense from producing as many wins as one might expect, Tampa Bay reaches this turning point just a game out of the final NFC postseason spot.
The Buccaneers obviously need to help themselves first, and a 4-4 record plus a 2-1 mark in division play would be a lot better than 3-5 and 1-2. But there are a lot of other games that are relevant to that playoff hunt here in Week Nine and we need to figure out what outcomes would be the best for the Buccaneers. Sure, you might be conditioned to always root against, say, the Falcons, or maybe you just don't like Kirk Cousins (even though he specifically asked, in fact, if you like that) so you want the Vikings to lose. But let's take a closer look at what we as Buccaneer fans should be rooting for this weekend.
We're going to go through this week's schedule game by game, starting with the early Sunday contests. We provided this guide on Friday so you didn't have to watch the San Francisco-Oakland game on Thursday night. You're welcome. Let's get started:
Chicago (4-3) at Buffalo (2-6), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
First of all, let's all find a little charity in our hearts as the holiday season approaches and root for Nathan Peterman just this one time. The beleaguered Bills quarterback and his career 31.4 passer rating is getting another shot because both Josh Allen and Derek Anderson are hurt and/or old. The only other option is Matt Barkley who just signed with the team two days ago and, also, is Matt Barkley. Peterman draws a tough card with Khalil Mack and a sack-happy Bears defense coming to town…but maybe Mack will miss a second straight game due to an ankle injury? That would be a relief for Peterman and good for the Buccaneers because this one is easy to call. Any time there's an NFC-AFC matchup, it's fairly obvious who to root for, and the Buccaneers have a loss against the Bears so would like to see them pushed down the Wild Card standings in case a tiebreaker comes into play.
Verdict: Go Fighting Petermans!
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
Pittsburgh (4-2-1) at Baltimore (4-4), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
A game pitting two AFC teams may not seem to have much of an impact on the NFC race, but there are two factors to keep in mind here. One, the Buccaneers already lost to the Steelers but haven't yet played the Ravens. There's a playoff tiebreaker – admittedly pretty far down the list – called "strength of victory," which adds up the records of all the teams a team has defeated that season. That means, once you've beaten a team, you actually want them to win as many of the rest of their games as possible. No opportunity there for the Bucs with the Steelers, but if they do beat the Ravens in December they'll have a better strength of victory number if the Ravens have won as many of the games in between. Two, that Bucs-Ravens game is in Week 15. By then, it will probably be pretty clear whether Baltimore is in the playoff race or not, and that would likely affect their level of motivation for a game two weeks from the end. So for that reason, you'd rather see a Pittsburgh win here and a further fall from grace for the Ravens. That's two competing issues, so…
Verdict: Since the strength of victory tiebreaker thingy is unlikely to come into play, let's root for the Ravens to lose this one and many more. Go Big Ben! Show the Ravens what time it is!
Tampa Bay (3-4) at Carolina (5-2), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
Verdict: Worried about Cam Newton, are you? Well, this Sunday you should actually root for Newton…'s third law of motion applying to a Bucs win, with the action of the Bucs' rising in the standings creating an equal and opposite reaction of the Panthers' falling.
Kansas City (7-1) at Cleveland (2-5-1), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
You like football, right? I mean, if you're seriously considering watching every game with a specific rooting interest, you must like football. And if that's the case, I assume you like watching Pat Mahomes play. Yes, for the slimmest of reasons – see the discussion of the "strength of victory" tiebreaker above – you should probably root for Cleveland here. But who do you really want to see come out on top here, Pat Mahomes or Gregg Williams. I thought so.
Verdict: Forget the Bucs' interests when you're watching this one and just enjoy Mahomes.
N.Y. Jets (3-5) at Miami (4-4), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
The Buccaneers don't play the Jets or Dolphins and neither does any other team in the NFC South. The Bears beat the Jets and lost to the Dolphins, and they might be a playoff impediment to the Bucs, but you would never get to the "strength of" tiebreakers because Chicago holds that head-to-head victory. The Lions, who are right in that playoff-mix scrum with the Bucs, too, beat the Dolphins but lost to the Jets. The Vikings beat the Jets and haven't played the Dolphins yet. My head is swimming.
Verdict: Honestly, it's pretty impossible to know if this game will matter in Week Nine. Let's make this easy for you: Root for the Jets because you want the Buccaneers to be the best team in Florida when it's all said and done.
Detroit (3-4) at Minnesota (4-3-1), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
Okay, here's one with some meat on the bone. In a potential Wild Card race, the Bucs are currently tied with the Lions and a bit behind the Vikings. If the season were to end today, there would be a lot of confused people on Sunday. Also, if the season were to end today, Carolina (5-2) and Seattle (4-3) would be the two NFC Wild Card teams, with Minnesota next, a half-game out. So, do we root for the team ahead of the Buccaneers to fall back to the pack, or would we rather see the team lower in the standings drop off and reduce the overall number of competitors? Tough call. That whole division is a jammed-up mess, with only one game separating all four teams in the standings. The Bears have it right now but we're hoping for a Chicago loss this week, which would give Minnesota a shot to take over first. Ideally, you want one of those four teams to pull away from the pack and the other three to lose as often as possible.
Verdict: So let's put our money on the Vikings to take the division (you like that, Kirk?) and hope the Lions are hunted to extinction. (That was morbid; I don't really mean that.) After this game, Detroit has two against the Bears and one each against the Panthers and Rams in the next four weeks, so things could go south for them fast. Meanwhile, Green Bay has to go to New England this week and has the Vikings and Seahawks coming up in short order. Go Vikings! Rule the North!
Atlanta (3-4) at Washington (5-2), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
You can skip this one if you want. If you're a Bucs fan, you know who to root for in this one, and you would probably do it regardless of any playoff implications. Still, let's unpack it a little. Washington is somewhat surprisingly on top of an NFC East division in which the other three teams have underwhelmed. If we're thinking in terms of the Wild Card here – that's where we have to start until and unless the Bucs trim down their three-game deficit to the Saints – then you want every division to have one clear leader and three otherwise floundering teams. So until Jay Gruden's team comes to town next week, we'll root for them. In the meantime, the Falcons are tied with the Buccaneers in the division and conference standings and probably have the necessary talent to get hot at some point. We need them to get every possible loss they can before that happens.
Verdict: You've rooted for a Gruden before. Channel that. Do it again.
Houston (5-3) at Denver (3-5), 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday
J.J. Watt vs. Von Miller. Root for the offensive lines so that JPP's competitors for the NFL sack lead don't make things any more difficult. Otherwise, I can't see much here that impacts the Buccaneers.
Verdict: Denver's probably a nicer place to visit than Houston, right? Let's just go with the Broncos, unless you enjoy seeing Deshaun Watson do his thing, which I can understand. Whatever, do you want.
L.A. Rams (8-0) at New Orleans (6-1), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday
What a game! This one is simple, too. The only reason to root against the Rams would be for the playoff seeding, and it's unlikely that the Buccaneers will go from 3-4 to the first-overall seed (though they did go from 3-4 to the second seed and a first-round playoff bye in 1999, so you never know). Plus, as long as the Rams stay undefeated, those old Dolphins players have to keep their champagne corked. The Buccaneers are three back of the Saints with nine games to go for each, but if the games in New Orleans and Charlotte break the right way this weekend, that lead would be trimmed to two. The Bucs have already beaten the Saints once and get them at home in Week 14. They could take another game off that lead on Dec. 9, head to head, and that would mean they would only have to tie the Saints (and keep the Panthers and Falcons behind them) to win the division, as they would have the 2-0 head-to-head tiebreaker.
Verdict: Sean McVay used to work at Buccaneer headquarters. He owes us one. Go Rams!
Green Bay (3-3-1) at New England (6-2), 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday
Another whopper of a game. The NFL is going to be a lot of fun four about seven hours on Sunday afternoon and evening. This is another easy one, even if some of you don't necessarily find it easy to root for the Patriots. With Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are always a threat to go on an extended winning streak, so you need them to catch any losses they can, and obviously going to Foxboro is one of the biggest challenges they could face. It's hard not to enjoy watching Rodgers when he's in a groove, but you need to try. If the Buccaneers can get into (at least) the Wild Card race in December, there's a very good chance the Packers will be one of the teams they'll battling with down to the end. That exact thing happened in 2010 when the Buccaneers finished 10-6 but lost the final playoff spot to Green Bay on a third-level tiebreaker. The Packers went on to win the Super Bowl.
Verdict: Go ahead and spend this game debating with your buddies about whether Brady or Rodgers is the G.O.A.T. But when the game is on the line, root for Tom.
Tennessee (3-4) at Dallas (3-4), 8:15 p.m. ET Monday
As someone who grew up rooting against the Cowboys no matter who they were playing, this one is easy for me. But it's also obvious and the right thing to do, as this is another AFC-NFC game. Tennessee's fortunes aren't particularly important to the Buccaneers but the Cowboys have the same record as the Bucs in the NFC standings and seem like a team that easily go in either direction. They have spent the entire year alternating wins and losses (L,W,L,W,L,W,L), so let's break that pattern this Monday night.
Verdict: Not the most entertaining of MNF matchups, but there's a reason to tune in, and that's to see Dallas stumble, hopefully.