Around midseason here on Buccaneers.com we began providing a weekly Viewing Guide for the upcoming slate of games, suggesting which teams a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be supporting for playoff-race purposes. It was fun for a while, and then it wasn't, and three weeks ago we were ready to let this feature quietly die a dignified death. The Buccaneers' 3-7 record seemed to rob it of its reason for existence.
Then Jameis Winston and a suddenly interception-happy secondary got out the defibrillator and shocked the Viewing Guide back to life…at least for now. The Buccaneers' two-game winning streak is admittedly a modest one, and at 5-7 the team is definitely well down the NFC pecking order. But those playoff hopes are alive, and they're better than they were two weeks ago thanks to some concurrent struggles by Carolina, Green Bay, Washington and Atlanta.
If the Buccaneers run the table over the final quarter of the regular season they would finish with a 9-7 record, and it will almost certainly take that as a minimum to get them into the dance. Since the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games in 1978, only 10 teams in 40 years have qualified for the playoffs with an 8-8 record. Since there are still nine NFC teams that could conceivably get to 10 wins (not all of them; that would be impossible), the Buccaneers do not control their own destiny even if they win out. That said, the delightful New York Times Playoff Calculator runs through tens of thousands of simulations every time you run it and consistently gives Tampa Bay between a 62-69% chance of getting in if they make it to 9-7.
We'll be referencing that Playoff Calculator several times below because a user can input any variety of game outcomes to see how they affect a team's chances of making it in. In most cases, we'll agree with the Times suggestion on who we should root for, but there will be an exception.
For the Bucs to win the next four, they first have to beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. That's a given. Now, who should you be rooting for in all the other games on Sunday and Monday? Read on.
N.Y. Jets (3-9) at Buffalo (4-8), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
Carolina (6-6) at Cleveland (4-7-1), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
We're going to start out with a couple easy ones, like a middle school math teacher tossing a few softball questions at the class to build confidence. This is 2+2=4 stuff. We'll get to the playoff calculus later. The first of these two games is an all-AFC matchup, which typically has little impact on the NFC playoff race, except for potentially strength of victory or strength of schedule concerns. That's not worth worrying about at the moment. Just for giggles I alternately plugged Bills and Jets wins into the Playoff Calculator and for some reason the Bucs' chances are two percentage points higher if the Jets win. What is the cause of this? Sorcery? Chem trails? I have no idea but I guess we're rooting for the Jets.
The second game is a complete no-brainer. Do we want Carolina to lose? Do you really have to think before answering that question? We've previously picked alien invaders over the Panthers. We'd probably even root for fire ants or telemarketers against the Panthers. Personal feelings aside, the Panthers are playing an AFC team so there's no gray area here. Push Carolina down the standings, and at the same time improve the Bucs' strength of victory because Tampa Bay has a win over the Browns.
Verdict: We're taking a flyer on the Jets (get it?) and the Panthers are the Panthers. Go Jets and Browns!
Atlanta (4-8) at Green Bay (4-7-1), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
These two teams have had a rough go of it lately and have virtually no shot at the playoffs. Even if you plug four wins in for the Falcons to finish things (which would include one over the Bucs), they only have a 21% chance of making it. Even though the Packers are a half-game ahead of the Falcons, if you give them four wins they're only at 16%. If either of these teams make the playoffs, the Bucs definitely will not. So why do we care? Well, we don't to a particularly large degree. In the world we've created to contemplate these issues – namely, the Bucs winning out – Tampa Bay will add a win over the Falcons in Week 17. So maybe that will impact Tampa Bay's strength of victory figure in case there is a deep dive into the tiebreakers. It's unlikely, so if you want to root against the Falcons on principle, go ahead.
Verdict: Go Falcons (no exclamation point allowed).
Indianapolis (6-6) at Houston (9-3), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
New England (9-3) at Miami (6-6), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
Not much to see here. At this point, you're probably thinking you need our advice on rooting for NFL teams as much as you need our suggestions for French poetry collections. That's fair. But stick with us because the games become a lot more meaningful at the end of the week.
Verdict: When in doubt, we always root for the underdogs. Go Colts and Dolphins!
Baltimore (7-5) at Kansas City (10-2), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
This is another all-AFC matchup, so the impact is minimal, but it does look like a pretty entertaining game. Kansas City is the highest-scoring team in the league. Baltimore's defense has allowed the fewest points in the league. Which will prevail? The NFL is pretty clearly an offensive league at this point, but for that reason it might be kind of satisfying to see the Baltimore defense carry the day in this one. Here's the thing: The Buccaneers are the next team to play the Ravens, so let's consider the emotional impact of this very big game for Baltimore. Ideally, it will be a hard-fought game down to the wire and the Ravens will win, and then have an emotional let-down the following weekend. We're grasping at straws but every little bit helps.
Verdict: Go Ravens!
New Orleans (10-2) at Tampa Bay (5-7), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
In addition to the obvious, it would be nice for the Buccaneers to get their first season sweep of the Saints since 2007. Plus, it sets up a potentially interesting parallel. Imagine for a moment the highly unlikely possibility that the Buccaneers don't beat the Saints on Sunday. New Orleans will be steaming towards the playoffs as an obvious NFC favorite along with the Rams. In 2002, the Buccaneers went 12-4, won the NFC South and went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII. If the Saints were to go all the way this year, it would be a fun coincidence that two of their very rare losses were to Tampa Bay.
Verdict: Go Bucs! (But you knew that.)
N.Y. Giants (4-8) at Washington (6-6), 1:00 p.m. ET Sunday
Both of these teams have wins over the Buccaneers but only one of them can become a tiebreaker problem down the road. That's obviously the Redskins, who have two more quarterback broken legs than victories over the last three weeks. The Buccaneers do not want to end up tied with the Redskins, so this is a big game for them. If you plug four wins for Tampa Bay and this game into the Playoff Calculator, the Bucs' odds of making it go all the way up to 75%. Did I mention this is a big game for the Bucs?
Verdict: Go Giants (but please don't hurt any more Washington quarterbacks)!
Cincinnati (5-7) at L.A. Chargers (9-3), 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday
Not much to go on here. The Buccaneers played the Bengals but won't face the Chargers, so a Bengals win is preferable in terms of the strength of schedule tiebreaker. And, indeed, the Playoff Calculator says the Bucs' chances are two percentage points higher with a Cincy win. So there's that.
Verdict: Go Bengals!
Denver (6-6) at San Francisco (2-10), 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday
This game isn't terribly important in the Bucs' big picture but it is mildly interesting in that it is the rare exception to the "always root for the AFC in interconference games" rule. Tampa Bay has a win over San Francisco, so any success by the 49ers helps the Bucs' strength of victory tiebreaker. It's not likely to come into play, but if you're looking for a reason to care about this rematch of Super Bowl XXIV, we just gave you one. A little one. San Francisco won that Super Bowl, 55-10. You're not likely to see a repeat.
Verdict: Go Super Bowl XXIV champs!
Detroit (4-8) at Arizona (3-9), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday
What to make of this one? These are both NFC teams but neither one is a worry for the Buccaneers in our 9-7 scenario. The Buccaneers also didn't play either of these teams so it won't matter to their strength of schedule figure. Yes, it could factor into the strength of schedule of other teams the Bucs could end up in a tie with, but that's almost impossible to figure out right now. Never mind all that, we'll give you two reasons to root for the Lions. One, the Playoff Calculator gives the Bucs better odds (69% to 61%) if Detroit wins. And, two, it's better if the Lions remain motivated to the end. There is one significant game – in terms of the Bucs' interests – remaining for both the Cardinals and Lions in the last three weeks. Arizona plays at Seattle in Week 17; as you'll see below, we're actually rooting for Seattle, and that's a really tough draw for the Cardinals anyway. The Lions play host to the Vikings in Week 16, and we're rooting against Minnesota. It would be good for the Bucs if Detroit got on a roll heading into that weekend.
Verdict: Go Lions!
Philadelphia (6-6) at Dallas (7-5), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday
This is the game with which we're going to acknowledge the results of the Playoff Calculator but still disagree with the decision. According to the Calculator, the Bucs' chances are better if Philadelphia wins. Presumably, that is based on the Eagles winning the NFC East and the Bucs having a better chance of defeating Dallas in a tiebreaker. Remember, in this scenario, the Bucs would also have a win over Dallas in Week 16 for a head-to-head tiebreaker, much as they do with the Eagles based on their Week Two victory. The Calculator seems to be hedging the Bucs' bets, giving them a better shot to beat either the Cowboys or the Eagles. In our minds, that's too complicated. Let's root for Dallas to win the NFC East – while still losing to the Bucs in Week 16 – and for Philadelphia to be in the Wild Card hunt with the Bucs. If Dallas wins this one they'll almost have it wrapped up over the Eagles, two games up in the standings with a 2-0 tiebreaker edge and three games to go. We're already assuming a continued Washington collapse here, so it all makes sense.
Verdict: For the second straight Viewing Guide we have to say, 'Go Cowboys?' Ugh. But here we are. The sacrifices we make.
Pittsburgh (7-4-1) at Oakland (2-10), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday
Yeah, no. Skip this one.
Verdict: We might care if this was the 1970s.
L.A. Rams (11-1) at Chicago (8-4), 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday
There's a very unlikely scenario in which the Vikings blow past the Bears for the NFC North title AND Chicago falls so hard in the final quarter that they are in the Wild Card hunt with the Buccaneers. That is not a good scenario, based on the Bears' win over the Buccaneers in Week Four. This actually is an important game for the Rams, as are all of the last four, because they have just a one-game lead over New Orleans and they lost to the Saints in Week Nine. The Rams don't want to have to contemplate a conference championship game in the venue of their only loss so far. But that's not the Bucs' problem. Give Chicago the North and be done with it.
Verdict: Go Bears!
Minnesota (6-5-1) at Seattle (7-5), 8:15 p.m. ET Monday
This is the most important game for Tampa Bay this week that is not going to be played in Raymond James Stadium. The Seahawks and the Vikings currently own the two NFC Wild Card spots, so the Buccaneers obviously need to catch at least one of them to get in. Seattle's lead over the Vikings is only a half-game but it's a big half-game. If the Vikings lose and the Bucs win, Tampa Bay will only be a half-game behind Minnesota, and if everything above also breaks the Bucs' way, no team will have leaped the Vikings into that last spot. The Vikings' matchups in the following two weeks, vs. Miami and at Detroit, are not terribly daunting, but they do have to finish the season against Chicago. Buccaneer fans need to make the Minnesota Vikings Enemy #1 the rest of the way. The Playoff Calculator agrees, giving Tampa Bay a better shot by eight percentage points if Seattle beats Minnesota.
Verdict: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks came into the NFL together in 1976 as sister franchises. That should mean something, right? Go Seahawks, don't let us down!