In Week 13, the playoff-hungry Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed a win in San Diego to take advantage of a near-perfect (for the Buccaneers) run of results elsewhere in the NFL. In Week 14, they needed a victory at home against New Orleans simply to hold their ground.
With three weeks to play, the Buccaneers are currently tied for the lead in the NFC South and in possession of the sixth and final NFC playoff seed. That's exactly where Tampa Bay was a week ago, but only a fifth straight victory guaranteed they would stay there. Unfortunately, the Buccaneers got no help from the rest of the league this time, as the following results went counter to their best interest:
- Washington edged Philadelphia to stay just behind the Bucs in the Wild Card race
- Minnesota and Green Bay beat Jacksonville and Seattle, respectively, to stay a game back of that sixth spot
- Atlanta trounced Los Angeles to remain technically in first in the South
- And finally, on Sunday night, the Giants snapped the Cowboys' 10-game winning streak to hold onto the five-seed
In addition to improving their own record to 9-4 and thus stay ahead of the Buccaneers, the Giants also prevented Dallas from clinching either the NFC East title or a first-round playoff bye. Indirectly, that could hurt the Buccaneers as it promises to make the Cowboys a more motivated team when Tampa Bay visits next Sunday night.
The Falcons win over the faltering Rams wasn't exactly unexpected, but it gave Atlanta an important edge in the NFC South race. Tampa Bay's win over New Orleans improved its record within the division to 3-1, which is identical to what Atlanta has done against South teams so far. That knocks out that tiebreaker for the moment and takes us to the next one, which is record against common opponents. Tampa Bay's Week Three loss to the Rams now looms large, as the Falcons' win over L.A. on Sunday makes them 4-3 against NFC and AFC West teams, while the Bucs finished 4-4 in the same category. If the Falcons win at home against the 1-12 49ers next Sunday, they'll clinch that tiebreaker. As such, the Bucs will almost surely need to win one more than Atlanta over the next three weeks to win the division and get a playoff opener at home.
Here are the conference playoff standings with four games yet to play:
NFC East Leader
NFC North Leader
NFC West Leader
NFC South Leader; ahead of TB on common games
- N.Y. Giants
First Wild Card
- Tampa Bay
Second Wild Card
Better head-to-head vs. GB
- Green Bay
As mentioned, if the Buccaneers and Falcons end up tied atop the NFC South standings after 16 games, a tiebreaker will decide the division title. Here are the first six tiebreakers, in the order they would be applied, and how the Bucs and Falcons currently stand on each one:
Common Games Record
Strength of Victory
Strength of Schedule
Again, it is record in common games that first separates these two teams. If that ends up in a tie due to a San Francisco loss, the Bucs and Falcons could get all the way down to such concepts as strength of victory (the combined winning percentage of all the teams you beat during the season) and strength of schedule (the combined winning percentage of all the teams you played during the season). Atlanta is ahead of the Buccaneers in both of those categories but their easier finishing schedule works against them in this case. Both of those percentages will go down significantly over the next three weeks. If the Buccaneers beat the Cowboys, there percentages in both categories will obviously go up.
If it does go all the way down to strength of schedule, then the only four games that would matter would be the two that each team played against non-common opponents. That's Dallas and Chicago for the Buccaneers, Philadelphia and Green Bay for Atlanta. The Bucs already beat Chicago and will play Dallas this coming Sunday. The Falcons beat Green Bay but lost to Philadelphia.
Arizona remains on the fringe of the race at 5-7-1 despite losing on Sunday at Miami, but the Cardinals would need to win out and get a significant amount of help. The same is true of three 5-8 teams – New Orleans, Carolina and Philadelphia, but even more so.
To reiterate, the Falcons still "control their own destiny" in the NFC South, which means they know they will take the division crown if they win their remaining three games, even if the Buccaneers also win out. The Bucs and Falcons split their two head-to-head games and, in a win-out scenario, would also be tied on division record. The next tiebreaker between two teams in the same division, as noted above, is record against common games. The NFC South common games would be a wash, so it comes down to how the two teams fared against the eight squads in the two West division. Here's how that looks:
That's 4-3 for the Falcons and 4-4 for the Buccaneers, which is what makes next week's game against the 49ers so important for Atlanta. The Falcons are sure to be heavily favored in that game. There is a scenario in which Tampa Bay could still win a tiebreaker if both teams finish at 10-6. Atlanta would need to lose to either Carolina on the road in Week 16 or New Orleans at home in Week 17. Meanwhile, the Bucs' one loss would need to come against Dallas (not that we're rooting for any losses), followed by wins over the Saints and Panthers. In that scenario, the Buccaneers would win the division based on a 5-1 division record against 4-2 for the Falcons.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Saints.
As for the teams chasing the Buccaneers, Washington is the closest but their tie against Cincinnati at midseason essentially renders any potential tiebreakers moot. Tampa Bay simply needs to stay ahead of Washington in order to edge them out for a spot. On the other hand, the Vikings and Packers are both just a game behind the Buccaneers and an end-of-season tie is certainly possible. The good news for the moment is that, since the Bucs did not play Minnesota or Green Bay this year, the first tiebreaker would be record in conference games, and the Bucs' 6-3 mark is currently better than those of Green Bay (5-5) and Minnesota (4-6). In addition, the Packers and Vikings play each other in Week 16, so chances are the Buccaneers will, in the end, only have to worry about one of them.
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, they appear to have the most difficult stretch of remaining games among the four teams currently seeded six to nine. In the charge below, SOS refers to strength of schedule, or the combined winning percentage of a team's remaining opponents.
at DAL, at NO, CAR
CAR, at CHI, NYG
IND, at GB, CHI
at CHI, MIN, at DET
With the end of the season just 20 days away, the various tiebreaker scenarios in a crowded NFC playoff race remain very volatile. The good news for the Buccaneers, however, is that they still control their own postseason destiny after a week dominated by the playoff front-runners. If Tampa Bay can stretch its five-game winning streak to eight, it will mean the season *will *extend beyond the next 20 days.