Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Match Makers

We explain the NFL’s scheduling system and give an early peek at what you might see in 2001

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If the season ended today, the Eagles, 49ers, Steelers and Browns would have to face the Bucs' imposing pirate ship

How would you feel about visits from the Steelers, Browns, Eagles and 49ers? Maybe a trip upstate to watch the Bucs take on the Jaguars in Jacksonville? Another trip to the Big Apple could be in the cards for your team, so maybe you can schedule a long weekend of shopping and football.

None of that is etched in stone, of course. It's not even typed on paper yet, but the formula that turns up those potential opponents is, and we're taking an early look.

The National Football League devises its schedule each year using the division rankings of each team and a rotating division plan for inter-conference games. The upshot is that, one second after the final NFL whistle is blown on Christmas Day this year, every team can know exactly who its 16 opponents for 2001 will be.

Dates, times and television schedules aren't announced until March, but the opponent lists can be figured out by anyone with a copy of the league's scheduling format. We have a copy. Let's plug in the numbers.

At this moment, the Buccaneers are in third place in the NFC Central. Should they finish in that spot – and that is certainly not the plan - they will play the third-place schedule. That is, they will automatically be matched up with against the first and third-place teams in the NFC East and the third and fifth-place squads in the NFC West.

At this moment, that formula would lead to home games against San Francisco and Philadelphia and away games versus Carolina and the New York Giants.

Next year, the NFC Central is due to match up against the AFC Central. As the third-place team in their division, the Bucs would be slated to play Pittsburgh and Cleveland at home and take road trips to Jacksonville and Tennessee. The remaining eight games, of course, are home-and-home sets against their four NFC Central opponents, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota.

Though the formula will not change, it could and probably will pump out different results as the teams jockey for position in their respective divisions. For instance, if the Bucs manage to pass Detroit for second place but can't catch the Vikings, they would instead end up with a home schedule of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington and St. Louis. That is, unless those teams also change positions in their division.

The crux of the discussion here is that one can't put too much stock in the results of this formula until the teams have truly sorted themselves out. Still, it's worth a periodic look at who might populate the Bucs' Raymond James Stadium Sundays next fall, so we'll provide occasional updates on how the 2001 schedule is falling out here in the Stadium Club news area. Stay tuned.

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