The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head to Minneapolis next fall for the second year in a row. Their trip to Oakland, however, will be their first in nearly a decade.
The dates and times of the Buccaneers 2012 regular-season games have yet to be determined, but the team does know who it will be playing, and where. The official list of next season's matchups was released by the NFL this week, after the conclusion of the 2011 regular season.
There weren't any real surprises, of course. The Bucs have known 14 of their 16 opponents for some time, and of course six games every year will come against NFC South rivals Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. The last two games were determined by the final 2011 standings, which produced a home contest against the St. Louis Rams and an away game against the Vikings.
One half of the Bucs' 2012 list of opponents was created by the rotating matchup of divisions the NFL has employed since the addition of a 32nd team (the Houston Texans) in 2002 and the creation of eight four-team divisions, four in each conference. For the Buccaneers, that means a three-year rotation against the other three NFC divisions, and a four-year rotation between the four AFC divisions.
This year, that rotation will pit the Buccaneers and their NFC South mates against the NFC East and the AFC West. The divisional matchup plan also calls for each head-to-head series to alternate between the two teams' home fields. For example, if the Buccaneers played the Eagles in Philadelphia the last time the NFC South and NFC East were matched up (as, in fact, they did in 2009), then this year's meeting would take place in Tampa.
There was one minor adjustment made to that divisional matchup plan that did affect the Buccaneers' 2012 schedule. In order to avoid giving opposing teams trips to both San Diego and Oakland in the same year, some of the home-and-away rotations were flopped. That means a trip to Denver for the Buccaneers in 2012, when the original rotation would have called for a trip to San Diego, instead.
All of which adds up to the following list of opponents for the Buccaneers in 2012:
- Atlanta Falcons
- Carolina Panthers
- Kansas City Chiefs
- New Orleans Saints
- Philadelphia Eagles
- St. Louis Rams
- San Diego Chargers
- Washington Redskins
- Atlanta Falcons
- Carolina Panthers
- Dallas Cowboys
- Denver Broncos
- Minnesota Vikings
- New Orleans Saints
- New York Giants
- Oakland Raiders
The Bucs' games against St. Louis and Minnesota were products of the final piece of the rotational scheduling. Each year, teams are matched against one opponent each from the two divisions within their conference that they are NOT scheduled to play that year. The specific matchups are created by pairing the teams that finished in the same places in the standings for their respective divisions.
Since the NFC South will play the NFC East next year, that meant single matchups against teams from the North and West. Tampa Bay finished in fourth place in the South, as did Minnesota in the North and St. Louis in the West. The Bucs won in Minneapolis in Week Two of this past season, 24-20. They also defeated the Rams the last time they visited Raymond James Stadium, 18-17, in 2010.
That same formula produced home and away matchups for New Orleans with San Francisco and Green Bay; for Atlanta, it's home against Arizona and on the road versus Detroit; the Panthers drew Seattle at home and Chicago on the road.
The rotational scheduling format that was introduced in 2002 is designed to make sure each team plays a home and a road game against every other team in the league within an eight-year span. The previous method relied more heavily on strength of schedule, using the standings from the previous year, and there were occasionally long droughts in certain head-to-head series. For instance, the Buccaneers had never played a game in Buffalo before their trip there in 2009.
Still, it's been eight years since Tampa Bay has ventured to Oakland, home of the team it defeated in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego after the 2002 season. The Bucs are still seeking their first win in Oakland in four tries dating back to their inaugural season of 1976 (the two teams also met once in Los Angeles during the Raiders' 13 seasons stationed in that city). That is the only location on the Bucs' eight-game road schedule for 2012 in which the team has not yet secured a victory.
Tampa Bay's home schedule for 2012 is loaded with some of the league's most prolific and exciting quarterbacks, including Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. The St. Louis Rams will also bring Sam Bradford to Tampa, with a new coaching staff potentially getting a breakout season from the former number-one-overall draft pick.
On the road, the Buccaneers' own franchise quarterback, Josh Freeman, will have to be on the lookout for some of the NFL's most dangerous pass-rushers. Dotting Tampa Bay's 2012 road schedule are four of the top 10 sack artists from 2011: Minnesota's Jared Allen (22.0 sacks), Dallas' DeMarcus Ware (19.5), New York's Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5) and Denver's Von Miller (11.5). The Bucs will also see three more of those top 10 at home in Philadelphia's Jason Babin, St. Louis' Chris Long and Kansas City's Tamba Hali.
Two of the Bucs' out-of-division visitors next fall will recall some of the team's greatest rivalry games of the past decade and a half. The Rams and Bucs played an epic Monday Night game late in the 2000 season, with the Buccaneers winning 38-35 to avenge the previous year's loss in the NFC Championship Game. The two teams also had a thrilling game in 2002, won by Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium; the Bucs also beat the Rams at home in 2007 and 2010.
Tampa Bay beat the Redskins three times at home in a short span in the mid-2000s, as well, taking the decision in meetings in 2005, 2006 and 2007. The best of those games was a 36-35 victory in 2005 that turned on a last-minute two-point conversion by Mike Alstott. Washington, however, returned to Tampa in the first round of the playoffs that season and got revenge with a 17-10 win.
The Rams are, at the moment, the only team on the Buccaneers' 2012 schedule that will be playing under a first-year head coach. The Bucs will get a close look at some of the NFL's top rookie talent next year, however. Tampa Bay is slated to play the teams picking second (St. Louis), third (Minnesota), sixth (Washington) and eighth (Carolina) in the 2012 NFL Draft.
The NFL's full schedule, with dates and times, will be released in the spring, most likely within the first two weeks of April. The first game will be played on Thursday, September 6, with the majority of the league holding their 2012 debuts on Sunday, September 9.