A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Chargers.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began Week 13 on the outside looking in when it came to the NFC playoff race. No more.
With their fourth straight win on Sunday, a 28-21 road conquest at San Diego, the Buccaneers took advantage of a very favorable week of results to vault upward in both the NFC South title hunt and the overall conference playoff standings. If the playoffs started today, Tampa Bay would be in, and that would snap an eight-year postseason drought for the franchise.
In addition to Tampa Bay's own win, which improved its record to 7-5, the following Week 13 outcomes worked in the team's favor:
- Dallas defeated Minnesota, 17-15 (on Thursday night)
- Kansas City defeated Atlanta, 29-28
- Detroit defeated New Orleans, 28-13
- Cincinnati defeated Philadelphia, 32-14
- Pittsburgh defeated the New York Giants, 24-14
- Arizona defeated Washington, 31-23
Only Green Bay's win over Houston failed to fall in Tampa Bay's favor, but the Packers remain a game behind the Bucs in the conference standings. The Atlanta loss meant the Buccaneers moved into a tie for first in the NFC South (though still technically behind on a tiebreaker), while the Washington loss allowed Tampa Bay to take over the second Wild Card position. Here are the conference playoff standings with four games yet to play:
NFC East Leader
NFC West Leader
NFC North Leader
NFC South Leader; ahead of TB on division record
- N.Y. Giants
First Wild Card
- Tampa Bay
Second Wild Card
Better head-to-head vs. GB
- Green Bay
Obviously, winning the division is the most favorable outcome for the Buccaneers, as it would lead to at least one home game in the playoffs. Since they are one of only six teams in the NFC that has a chance to reach 11 wins, the Bucs definitely control their own postseason destiny at this point. The same cannot be said of the NFC South title, due to a fourth-level tiebreaker that can fall in the Falcons' favor.
The term "control your own destiny" refers to the notion that as long as you win all your remaining games it doesn't matter what any other team does. Unfortunately, that's not quite true for the Buccaneers in their battle with Atlanta. If the Buccaneers win out, they will be 11-5, but the Falcons could match that record and force the division title into tiebreakers. Here are the first four tiebreakers that would be applied in that scenario, in this order:
- Head-to-head record between the two teams.
- Division record.
- Record in common games.
- Record in conference games.
It's that third one that potentially trips up the Buccaneers. Look again at the table above, which lists division and conference records for both teams. If Tampa Bay and Atlanta both win out, they would finish with identical 5-1 and 9-3 records in those two categories.
That brings us to "common games," or the teams' respective records against opponents they both faced this year. Since the Bucs and Falcons would each be 5-1 in their common games against NFC South teams, that leaves eight other opponents that were on both schedules. To put it simply, it's the eight teams in the AFC West and NFC West. Here are those eight opponents and how the Bucs and Falcons have fared against them so far:
As you can see, the Buccaneers have already played all four of those opponents, finishing 4-4. Atlanta is also .500 against that list at this point but, crucially, has two games still to go. The Falcons head to Los Angeles this coming weekend before playing host to San Francisco in Week 14. If they win both of those games – which is part of the assumption of this scenario, they will have a 5-3 record in common games and will win the division that way.
It's interesting, though not impactful to this tiebreaker scenario, that to this point the Bucs have beaten every team the Falcons have lost to on that list, and vice versa. It would help Tampa Bay considerably if that trend was snapped this Sunday and the Rams upended the Falcons, as they did the Buccaneers in Week Three.
If the Falcons were to lose one of their next two games and then finish with wins over Carolina and New Orleans, they would end up with a 10-6 record. A 3-1 stretch run for the Buccaneers would give them the same record. In that scenario, the only game the Bucs could lose and still have a shot at the division title would the Week 15 contest at Dallas. A loss to Carolina or in either New Orleans game would lead to a 4-2 record in division games and that would give the 10-6/10-6 scenario tiebreaker to the Falcons. If the Bucs finished in a 10-6 tie but their one remaining loss to Dallas, then the Bucs and Falcons would have to go to the fifth tiebreaker, which is "strength of victory" in all games. In other words, you would have to add up the win-loss records of all 10 opponents that each team beat. Whichever team's combined "strength of victory" winning percentage is higher would take the division title.
Given that we're now talking about the results of not only the Tampa Bay and Atlanta games but also all the other games still to be played by their opponents, it is nearly impossible to determine which team would come out on top on that tiebreaker. At the moment, Atlanta has a superior "SOV" number to Tampa Bay, .556 to .446, but their four remaining opponents all have losing records. The Bucs' strength of victory would go up quite a bit with a win over Dallas, but remember that in this scenario, that game is a loss.
As for the teams that are now chasing the Buccaneers, Washington is the closest and, barring a tie for the Buccaneers, there will be no need for a tiebreaker between those two teams. Washington's four remaining competitors are Philadelphia, Carolina, Chicago and the Giants. It would be best for the Buccaneers if the NFC East remains competitive so that the Giants will have much to play for in the final weekend.
On the other hand, the Buccaneers are now just a game behind the Giants for the first Wild Card spot. New York has a tough remaining schedule, with home games against Dallas and Detroit and season-ending road trips to Philadelphia and Washington.
As is usually the case, it's not easy to get full clarity on the NFL playoff race with a full month of games still to be played. While we know what will happen if both the Buccaneers and Falcons win the remainder of their games, the more likely scenario involves an imperfect record down the stretch. In other words, things may look very different a week from now, and then different again a week after that.
The good news, however, is simple: After a very favorable week for the Buccaneers across the NFL scoreboard, they are no longer on the outside looking in.