If the season ended today, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would miss the playoffs on a fifth-level tiebreaker. Fortunately, there are two weeks left to play and the Buccaneers still have a very promising place in the NFC postseason hunt.
Washington's loss to Carolina on Monday night football pushed the Redskins out of the second Wild Card spot and left that open to a pair of 8-6 teams, the Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers. At the moment, it's the Packers who get to fill that sixth line in the standings, thanks to a marginally better "strength of schedule" figure.
Here is how the NFC standings look with two weeks left to play:
( Indicates record against common opponents between the Buccaneers and Packers.)
The first tiebreaker between the Buccaneers and Packers would be head-to-head record, but those two teams will not meet during the regular season. After that, the two Bay teams are tied in record against conference opponents, record against *common opponents and strength of victory. Strength of victory (SOV) measures the combined winning percentage of every team you have beaten. The next tiebreaker is strength of schedule (SOS), which measures the combined winning percentage of every team you have *played.
*Here's a look at the tiebreakers, in order, between the Buccaneers and Packers:
That the Buccaneers and Packers tiebreaker comes down to issues such as strength of victory and strength of schedule means almost every game on the NFL schedule is important. For instance, if Kansas City hadn't "iced" Tennessee kicker Ryan Succop on Sunday and given him a second shot at a game-winning field goal, the Chiefs would have added another notch to the Buccaneers' strength of victory number. Tampa Bay would thus be slightly ahead of Green Bay in that tiebreaker and would currently own the #6 seed.
Either way, the Buccaneers would not control their own playoff destiny, though they are extremely close to doing so. If Tampa Bay wins its final two games, the only other result they would need to go their way over the final two weeks in order to guarantee a playoff spot would be Detroit losing at Dallas next Monday night.
If the Buccaneers win their last two games at New Orleans and at home against Carolina, they will finish with a 10-6 record. Thanks to their loss on Monday night, the Redskins can finish no better than 9-6-1. If Detroit loses to Dallas, it would drop to 9-6. Regardless of what happens to Green Bay this week against Minnesota, the NFC North will come down to the Week 17 Packers visit to Detroit. A win by Green Bay would make the Packers the division champs and push Detroit to 9-7. A win by Detroit would make the Lions division champs and push the Packers to, at best, 9-7. Either way, the loser of that game would also fall behind the Bucs in the Wild Card race.
If Detroit beats Dallas, it becomes more complicated for the Buccaneers. In that scenario, the NFC North would come down to a final matchup between the 10-5 Lions and the 9-6 Packers, if Green Bay beats Minnesota. If the Packers then won that game, they would be 10-6 and would win the division on a head-to-head tiebreaker with Detroit. The Lions would then be 10-6 and would have a very slight edge over the Buccaneers based on games against common opponents. Thanks to that hypothetical win over Dallas, Detroit would have a 4-1 record against common foes compared to the Bucs' 3-2 mark.
Thus, if Green Bay and the Buccaneers both win their final two games and the Lions beat Dallas next Monday, Tampa Bay would end up on the outside looking in among those three teams thanks to a tiebreaker against Detroit. The Buccaneers could still get a Wild Card berth in that scenario with two losses by the New York Giants.**
The Buccaneers hopes for the NFC South title remain unchanged. They simply need to win one more game than Atlanta over the next two weeks. Either way, in a tie of 10-6 or 9-7 teams, the Bucs would win the tiebreaker over the Falcons thanks to a better record against NFC South opponents.
Atlanta took the lead in the Buccaneers in the "common games" tiebreaker on Sunday by beating San Francisco. However, after the Buccaneers' loss to Dallas, that common games advantage for Atlanta is functionally irrelevant. Now that Tampa Bay is a game behind the Falcons, it needs to win one more time than Atlanta over the next two weeks in order to catch them in the division standings.
Here is the way the Bucs-Falcons tiebreakers would play out if both teams finish 10-6:
If the Buccaneers won once over the next two weeks and the Falcons lost twice, both teams would finish at 9-7, and then the tiebreaker scenarios would be:
As you can see, Atlanta's "common games" edge would no longer matter, as the tie would be broken before that by the Buccaneers' superior record against division opponents.