With the NFL and the NFLPA progressing toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league is reportedly headed to an expanded playoff field, with seven teams qualifying from each conference instead of six. The highest seed in each conference would get a first-round bye and the other six teams would play during the traditional bye week.
Had that format been in place in 2019 it might have made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' final month of play a bit more exciting, though in the end they still would have been left out of the seven-team postseason field. The Buccaneers rode a four-game winning streak back to .500 and were standing at 7-7 after Week 15.
At the time, that still left Tampa Bay three games behind the second Wild Card spot and thus officially eliminated from contention. However, had there been a seventh playoff spot, the Bucs – and the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears, also 7-7 – would have been just one game behind the Los Angeles Rams in that competition. Tampa Bay also had a tiebreaker edge over the Rams, having beaten them in Los Angeles in Week Four.
Of course, that would all have been rendered moot by Tampa Bay's two losses to close out the regular season, but both of those contests were extremely close, a three-point game against Houston and an overtime finish against Atlanta. There likely would have been an added layer of excitement about those last two contests, building on the good feelings of that winning streak.
In the end, it would be the defending conference champion Rams who would have taken the seventh spot.
The NFL last expanded its playoff field in 1990, adding a third Wild Card to go from five qualifying teams in each conference to six. The league expanded to its current 32-team field in 2002 with the addition of the Houston Texans and realigned into eight four-team divisions, which meant a playoff field of four division winners and two Wild Cards but still a total of six in each conference.
If the NFL had used a 14-team playoff field from that expansion season on and the resulting standings stayed the same each year, the Buccaneers would have had two additional playoff campaigns, in 2008 and 2016. If we extend the 14-team field back to 1990, the Buccaneers also would have tasted the postseason in 1998. On the other hand, Tampa Bay's near-miss in 2010 would have become just a bit more frustrating.
On the other hand, the proposed new format would have made the Bucs' road to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII significantly more difficult and also would have added another step in their run to the 1999 NFC Championship Game. The Buccaneers were the second seed in both of those seasons, behind St. Louis in 1999 and Philadelphia in 2002, and in both cases the top two seeds ended up in the conference championship game, with the Bucs on the road both times.
Here's how those six seasons went down, and how they could have gone down, in chronological order:
After their drought-breaking playoff run in 1997, the Buccaneers stumbled out of the game in '98, losing three of their first four. After clawing back to even at midseason, the Bucs hit another three-game skid that banished them to the fringes of the playoff race. However, by winning four of their last five games the Bucs got back to .500 again by season's end and they headed to Cincinnati still alive in the race but needing some help. After a 35-0 thrashing of the Bengals, the Bucs boarded their plane home needing a loss by the Cardinals to the Chargers in the late-afternoon games, but they learned midflight that Arizona had pulled out a narrow victory to take the sixth and final NFC spot.
A seventh spot would have come down to the Buccaneers and Giants, both 8-8. Tampa Bay would have won that tiebreaker thanks to a 20-3 win over New York in Week Five. As the seventh seed, they would have been sent to Atlanta in Wild Card weekend, as the Falcons would have lost their bye. That would have made the road a bit tougher for the Falcons, who in reality would go on to win the NFC Championship Game in Minnesota before losing to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII. Had the Buccaneers beaten Atlanta their next trip would have been to the highest remaining seed of the games pitting Arizona at Dallas and Green Bay at San Francisco. As the three seed, Dallas would have been the most likely destination.
The Buccaneers won 11 games in 1999, then a team record, and their first division title in 20 years as part of the former NFC Central. In addition to the Bucs and the Rams, the Washington Redskins made it in as a division winner, while the three Wild Cards, in seeding order, were Minnesota, Dallas and Detroit. In the Wild Card Round Washington beat Detroit and Minnesota beat Dallas. That sent Washington to Tampa for the Divisional Round. The Buccaneers defeated the Redskins to get to the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis, then lost a thriller to the Rams, 11-6.
In the seven-team format, the Buccaneers would have lost their first-round bye and would have been matched up against the new team in the field, the seventh seed. That would have been 8-8 Carolina, thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker win over 8-8 Green Bay. The Buccaneers did not play Carolina in 1999.
The other two Wild Card matchups would have remained the same, so the remainder of the Buccaneers' playoff path would have also, assuming the same results. Had the Buccaneers won a home game against the Panthers they still would have faced Washington the following weekend.
Tampa Bay set a team record with 12 wins in 2002, winning the first NFC South title and earning a first-round bye as the second seed. The 12-4 Eagles were the top seed thanks to a win over the Buccaneers in Philadelphia in Week Seven. The Buccaneers handily won a Divisional Round game at home against San Francisco, then went back to Philly for a rematch in the same stadium in which their playoff runs had died quickly in each of the two previous seasons. Ronde Barber's unforgettable pick-six clinched a 27-10 win over the Eagles and sent the Bucs to San Diego, where they drubbed the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21.
Tampa Bay would have had to play one extra game to get to the Lombardi Trophy that season under the proposed new playoff format. The seventh team into the NFC field would have been New Orleans, another NFC South team, which finished 9-7 and just behind the six seed, Atlanta, also of the same division.
That would have meant a first-round trip by the Saints to Tampa and would have been a very interesting matchup given that the Saints had dealt the Bucs two of their only four losses all season. The Buccaneers' regular season had opened with a 26-20 overtime loss to New Orleans in Tampa, and the rematch was a 23-20 Saints win in the Superdome. That was Tampa Bay's only loss in a seven-game span.
The other first-round matchups would have remained the same, with San Francisco facing the Giants at home and Green Bay playing host to Atlanta. Assuming the same results again, the Buccaneers would have just had to duplicate their two wins to get back to San Diego, just perhaps a bit more tired from that Wild Card contest. The lost bye week could have also spelled trouble for Tampa Bay because starting quarterback Brad Johnson was trying to make his way back from a back injury that cost him the final two regular-season games.
This was the final season of Jon Gruden's seven-year run as the Bucs' head coach, and it ended in demoralizing fashion. After three-quarters of the season, Tampa Bay had a 9-3 record, which was tied for the second-best record in the NFC. It was also good for a tie atop the NFC South with the 9-3 Carolina Panthers. However, Tampa Bay then lost a showdown game on the road against the Panthers, though they were still in very good standing in the playoff race. Stunningly, three more losses followed to close out the season and the 9-7 Buccaneers missed the playoffs by a half-game, with the final spot going to 9-6-1 Philadelphia.
Had there been a seventh playoff spot available, the Bucs would have been tied with the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, all 9-7 and all in different divisions. That means the first tiebreaker applied is a head-to-head sweep, which requires all three teams to have played each other. The Bucs beat the Bears and the Cowboys beat the Bucs but Chicago and Dallas didn't play so this one fails to break the tie. That's fortunate for the Buccaneers, because the next tiebreaker is conference record, and Tampa Bay would have won that with an 8-4 mark; the other two teams were both 7-5.
As the seventh seed, the Buccaneers would have earned a trip to Carolina, which in the six-team format had earned a bye. There might have been reason for the Panthers to worry even though they had won four of their last five, including that one over Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers had previously defeated the Panthers, 27-3, in Week Six. The fact that the Panthers followed their bye week with a Divisional Round loss at home to Arizona suggests that they might have been vulnerable to a Buc upset in January, too, although the Cardinals did go all the way to the Super Bowl that postseason. Had Tampa Bay beaten Carolina in the seven-team field, its most likely destination for the next round would have been either Minnesota or Arizona.
In Raheem Morris's second season as the head coach, the Buccaneers got off to a fast start and second-year quarterback Josh Freeman had his best season, with 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. Tampa Bay won five of its first seven games and Morris coined the "Race to 10" motto, referring to double-digit wins usually getting teams into the playoffs.
As it happened, though the Bucs slowed down in the second half they did make it to 10 wins by taking their last two games of the season. Unfortunately, Green Bay also won its last two games to get to that 10-win mark while the Giants captured a Week 17 victory over Washington to finish 10-6 as well. The three-way tie for the final Wild Card spot went all the way to a fifth-level tiebreaker – strength of victory – and that came out in the Packers' favor. Green Bay got the last playoff spot…and made the most of it, winning three road games to make it to Super Bowl XLV and then beating Pittsburgh for the Lombardi Trophy.
The run through the tiebreakers would have been even more disappointing for the Buccaneers had a seventh playoff spot been available. After the procedure broke the three-way tie between the Packers, Giants and Bucs, New York and Tampa Bay would have started the tiebreakers over at the top. The Buccaneers and Giants didn't square off during the regular season so there was no head-to-head result to break the tie, and both teams finished with 8-4 records within the conference. Thus, it would have gone to record against common opponents, and the Giants would have prevailed in that tiebreaker and left the Bucs still on the outside looking in.
As noted above, the NFL expanded its playoff field from five to six spots per conference in 1990. Had each conference had seven spots since then, only two teams that reached 10 wins would have been left out: the 1991 Eagles and the 2010 Buccaneers.
This was Dirk Koetter's first season as head coach, and it certainly didn't start out like a playoff campaign. The Buccaneers lost three of their first four games and hit the midway point with a 3-5 record. However, a five-game winning streak made Tampa Bay relevant with three weeks to go. The Bucs would then lose tough road games at Dallas and New Orleans, with a one-point win over Carolina in Week 17 producing a 9-7 finish.
The Lions also finished 9-7. Detroit and Tampa Bay didn't play each other in 2016, and both teams finished with 7-5 marks in conference games. That took the matter to the third tiebreaker, and the Lions won that with a better record against common opponents.
The Bucs would have taken the seventh NFC playoff spot if it were available in 2016. That would have created a Wild Card matchup against the second-seeded Atlanta Falcons, who actually had a bye in the six-team field. The Falcons followed up that week of rest with wins over Seattle and Green Bay and even had a 28-3 second-half lead over New England in Super Bowl LI before the Patriots' memorable comeback.
The Buccaneers split with the Falcons during the 2016 regular season, opening the year with a 31-24 win in Atlanta. Had they been able to turn a seventh seed into another win in Atlanta, the Bucs likely would have followed that with a trip to Seattle, which easily handled Detroit in the first round.