The NFL playoffs begin this weekend, and on Saturday night the Detroit Lions will play at Seattle to begin their own Super Bowl quest. If not for the smallest of differences in a third-level tiebreaker, it would be the Buccaneers heading to the Pacific Northwest.
Tampa Bay and Detroit each finished with 9-7 records. Each team started the season 1-3 before winning eight of their last 12, and each had a five-game winning streak in the second half of the campaign. Their identical records meant they concluded the season in a tie for the second NFC Wild Card spot, thereby invoking a complicated list of tiebreakers.
The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record, but the Bucs and Lions did not meet in 2016. The second is record against conference opponents, and both Tampa Bay and Detroit were 7-5 in that category. That brings us to record against common opponents, and the Buccaneers and Lions played five games each against these four teams: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New Orleans.
Detroit went 3-2 in those games, while the Buccaneers went 2-3. That tiebreaker was secured in Week 16 when the Buccaneers lost at New Orleans, a team that Detroit had beaten in Week 13. Of course, Tampa Bay also beat the Saints, a division foe, in Week 14. Similarly, the Buccaneers beat the Bears while Detroit split with Chicago, their division foe. The one team that Detroit beat that Tampa Bay did not was the Rams.
Had the Buccaneers and Lions finished in a tie in the "common games" department, the next two tiebreakers would have been strength of victory and strength of schedule. Tampa Bay had a stronger mark in both categories and would have won in that scenario. In other words, the Buccaneers' forged a record identical to the Lions but against a slightly tougher slate of opponents, and their victories were against a more successful group of teams.
In fact, Tampa Bay beat three teams that are in the 2016 playoff field, all division winners, while the Lions did not log a single victory against playoff teams. The Buccaneers beat the NFC's second seed, Atlanta, on the Falcons' home turf. They also beat the AFC's second seed, Kansas City, on their turf.
All of this, of course, sounds like sour grapes, which is not the intention. The NFL has fair and well-established tiebreaker hierarchies in place, and if they had worked out in the Buccaneers' favor there would be no apologies about the resulting playoff berth. The Lions undoubtedly deserve to be in the playoffs.
Rather, what that is meant to illustrate is how successful Tampa Bay's season was, and how close they came to chasing their postseason dreams. Essentially, the Buccaneers built a record good enough to be in the playoffs, but there were simply not enough spots available. That's the point of tiebreakers. And, as the Lions may prove, every team that makes the postseason field has a chance to win it all. In 2010, the Buccaneers went 10-6 but missed out on the playoffs due to a similarly down-the-list tiebreaker against the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl.
Even the NFC South title remained within reach for the Buccaneers with just two weeks left in the season. In Week 13, Tampa Bay pulled into a first-place tie in the division at 7-5, and each team won in Week 14 to go to 8-5. The Buccaneers' next assignment was at the home of the NFC's top seed, Dallas, and the Cowboys prevailed, 26-20, on the way to a 13-3 record. The Falcons pulled ahead in the standings on that weekend and stayed ahead by winning their last two to finish 11-5.
Atlanta ended up winning the division by two games and they are obviously the deserving NFC South champions. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers were left out of the playoffs after losing out on a tiebreaker, but they took the division down to the wire and split with the eventual champions. That may not be much consolation to Buccaneer players and coaches at this moment, but it's an encouraging set of results for 2017 in what has historically been the NFL's most competitive division.
And the Buccaneers appear to be well-armed to contest that division for years to come. Their 23-year-old quarterback, Jameis Winston, just became the first passer in NFL history to start his career with consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. Winston's favorite target, 23-year-old wide receiver Mike Evans, is headed to the Pro Bowl after a 96-catch, 1,300-yard, 12-touchdown season. The Bucs had two other pass-catchers top 50 receptions – Cam Brate and Adam Humphries – and both are 25 or younger. The offensive line is anchored by a pair of second-year blockers in left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet, both second-round picks in 2015.
The Buccaneers played 12 rookies in 2016, and 28 of the 53 players on their season-ending roster are third-year players or younger. That includes 2016 draft picks Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence, who made an instant impact on a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed during the second half of the season.
That defense features five-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, who has at least seven sacks in five straight seasons. Spence added 5.5 sacks as a rookie and 2016 free agency addition Robert Ayers had 6.5 despite missing significant time due to injury. The Buccaneers also added CB Brent Grimes in free agency in 2016, and Grimes led the NFL with 24 passes defensed. He also intercepted his fourth pass in the season finale, becoming the only player with at least four picks in each of the last four seasons. Tampa Bay's defense led the NFL in third-down rate allowed, a significant indicator of success, and forced 29 turnovers to rank third in the NFL.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 2-14 in 2014. They were one of 41 teams to win two or fewer games since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978. Only 15 of those 41 teams managed to climb to a winning record within the next two years, with the Buccaneers being the most recent. A playoff berth may have escaped them on a tiebreaker, but the future is clearly bright.