The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the (sort of) midway point of their 2021 season with a 6-2 record, which means if the playoffs started this week…well, the Buccaneers would lose their bye, which seems unfair. Also, I'm personally against that concept because I was hoping to spend the vast majority of this Sunday in my living room watching other teams play football.
Of course, what I mean to say is that the Bucs' 6-2 record has them in first place in the NFC South after eight weeks, a half-game ahead of the 5-2 Saints, and in possession of the hypothetical fourth seed in the conference standings. That would buy them a first-round home game against…sheesh, the Los Angeles Rams, who are 7-1 and already have a win over Tampa Bay in the books. The NFC is crazy this year.
The Bucs only sit fourth in the standings right now because Green Bay and Arizona are both 7-1 and Dallas is 6-1 and those three teams are all division leaders. Obviously, there's a long way to go for all of that to change, but the top-heavy conference creates a whole lot of targets at which Bucs fans can fire our arrows of bad mojo on game day. That's what I'll be doing this weekend, but first I need to make sure I know exactly which way to root in each game.
Want to join me? Here are my suggestions for which teams to root for in Week Nine, with the games presented in chronological order. This is your 2021 Bye Week Viewing Guide.
N.Y. Jets (2-5) at Indianapolis Colts (3-5), Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET
There's not much on the line for the Buccaneers as the games begin on Thursday night, as it's a matchup of two AFC teams. The result will almost certainly have no impact on how the final NFC standings shake up, unless some very unlikely "strength of victory" or "strength of schedule" tiebreakers come into play, and even then it's impossible to predict at the moment which would be the better outcome for the Buccaneers. In this case, however, the Buccaneers do play both of these teams over the final 10 weeks, the Colts in Week 12 and the Jets in Week 17, both on the road. So, basically, you would like to see both teams playing poorly when they're game against Tampa Bay is approaching, and the Colts are up sooner so put your support behind the Jets at this juncture. Plus, don't you want to root for Mike White?
Verdict: Root for the Jets and their new White Knight. Who knows, maybe that could actually lead to quarterback controversy that will then throw the Jets into turmoil for the latter half of the season.
Minnesota Vikings (3-4) at Baltimore Ravens (5-2), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Sometimes it's as easy as just saying, "Root for the AFC team over the NFC team in an interconference game," and that's the case here. I already named five NFC teams that are 6-2 or better, and then we have the obviously frisky Saints just barely behind at 5-2. If those teams can hold on to the top six spots, it's not obvious who would be the most likely seventh team in the field. It's Carolina right now at 4-4 but also are lurking are the Vikings and…well, take your pick from among six NFC teams with three wins at the moment. Maybe Seattle when Russell Wilson gets back in the kitchen? Anyway, we don't need any more teams crashing this party. Just in case the Buccaneers are fighting for a Wild Card spot instead of the division title in late December – I know, hush my mouth, but it is a possibility we can account for here – let's keep the number of contenders at a minimum. Kirk Cousins and company are on the outside right now; let's keep them there.
Verdict: Root for Lamar Jackson to put on a show like only Lamar Jackson can.
New England Patriots (4-4) at Carolina Panthers (4-4), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
If you happened to skip the previous entry on the Vikings-Ravens game, kindly go back and read it because for this game I'm just going to say, "Ditto." There is no reason to root for an NFC South team over an AFC squad, and in this case a win by New England would also help the Bucs' strength-of-victory tiebreaker mark, since Tampa Bay won in Foxborough in Week Four. Plus, I mean, it's the Panthers. I don't think I need to tell you to root against the Panthers, in perpetuity, unless there is some greater good at stake. That's not the case here.
Verdict: Go Michael McCorkle Jones!
Cleveland Browns (4-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-3), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Am I the only one who constantly has to remind himself, "Okay, it's Joe Burrow on the Bengals and Baker Mayfield on the Browns, right?" I am? Shoot. And this month it's Burrow and the Bengals who are on an upward trajectory and Mayfield and the Browns who are struggling? But wait, Cincinnati just lost to the Jets (and Mike White!). Whatever. Honestly, I'm very much looking forward to this game because I would believe virtually any outcome, and it might tell us which of these two Ohio franchises has a chance to stick with the AFC's elite the rest of the way. As for this game and how it matters to the Bucs, well, it really doesn't. Pick the quarterback you like most or maybe the shade of orange you prefer and just enjoy the game. That's what I'm going to do.
Verdict: Go Buckeye State!
Denver Broncos (4-4) at Dallas Cowboys (6-1), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Of all the NFC teams with six or more wins so far, the one we want to root for the most is the Dallas Cowboys, and that's not something I would ever say lightly. Let's just say that if Tom Brady started counting Super Bowl rings and at the same time I started counting the number of times I've ever rooted for Dallas, Brady would probably be the only one who would need a second hand. The point is, if the Buccaneers end up in a tiebreaker situation for seeding at the end of the season, potentially even for the lone first-round bye, they would most like to be in that battle with the Cowboys, whom they beat in Week One. However, none of those teams are playing each other this week so – spoiler alert – we're pretty much just going to root against all of them. Which means that I actually get to enjoy my viewing experience of this game.
Verdict: Root for these Broncos not to be tamed by a group of Cowboys.
Buffalo Bills (5-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Houston Texans (1-7) at Miami Dolphins (1-7), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
AFC-vs.-AFC in both cases so pff. The Buccaneers will eventually play the Bills this year and not the Jaguars, but I don't think any random outcome in Week Nine is going to affect how strong Buffalo for their Week 14 visit to Tampa. The Bucs have already beaten the Dolphins so any future wins for Miami is good for their schedule-based tiebreakers. Since I don't have much else to say about these games, I'll use the rest of this section to remind everyone of the order of tiebreakers for playoff spots (there are actually up to 12 tiebreakers on each list but the ones in the bottom half are almost brought into play):
Two Clubs, Division Title…
- Division record
- Record in common games
- Conference record
- Strength of victory
- Strength of schedule
Three Clubs, Division Title…
Same as above but you start over at the top if only one team is eliminated by the tiebreakers first.
Two Clubs, Wild Card or Conference Seeding…
- Head-to-head, if applicable
- Conference record
- Record in common games (minimum of four)
- Strength of victory
5. Strength of schedule
Three Clubs, Wild Card or Conference Seeding…
- First use division tiebreakers to eliminate all but one team from each division
- Head-to-head sweep (only applies if one team swept the other two or one team lost to the other two)
- Conference record
- Record in common games (minimum of four)
- Strength of victory
- Strength of schedule
Verdict: Well, I know which of these two games I would choose to watch over the other one. As for the winners, it's largely irrelevant.
Atlanta Falcons (3-4) at New Orleans Saints (5-2), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
One thing that could happen while the Buccaneers are enjoying Sunday off is that they could be passed in the standings, technically, by the Saints. If New Orleans beats the division-rival Falcons at the Superdome it will improve to 6-2 and create a tie at the top of the NFC South with Tampa Bay. And since the Saints just beat the Bucs last Sunday, that means they would currently have the first tiebreaker – head-to-head results – in their favor. It really doesn't mean anything to apply such a tiebreaker now because the Bucs and Saints will play again in Week 15 and a Tampa Bay win would take that tiebreaker off the table. Still, if the Saints beat Atlanta on Sunday and you feel like perusing the standings on NFL.com or somewhere else, you're going to see the Saints listed in the first slot. We really don't want that. What we want is the rest of the division beating each other up, leaning towards whichever of the two teams has the worse record at the time. And, beyond that, it seems pretty clear that the Saints are the biggest challengers to the Bucs in the division race. (Or perhaps I should say the Bucs are the biggest challengers to the Saints, since New Orleans has had a grip on the division crown for four years running.)
Verdict: Sometimes you've got to throw your lot in with those you would rather avoid. Go Falcons.
Las Vegas Raiders (5-2) at N.Y. Giants (2-6), Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
The Giants have struggled for most of this year, but they weren't exactly lighting the world on fire last season when the Buccaneers faced them on Monday Night Football in Week Eight. Despite being 1-6 at the time, the Giants took the 5-2 Bucs down to the wire in the Meadowlands, with the visitors needing a dazzling break-up of a two-point conversion pass attempt by rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. to hold on to a two point win. Well, lo and behold, the Giants are just a few weeks away from journeying to Tampa for another midseason Monday Night Football tilt. Those two teams will rekindle what has been a surprisingly thrilling rivalry in recent years in Week 11 at Raymond James Stadium. Presumably, the Giants will be a little less motivated on that evening if they're, say, 2-8, after losses to Las Vegas and Washington in the interim.
Verdict: Go Raiders!
Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-5), Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET
I mentioned earlier that we are simply going to root for the AFC team in almost every game pitting the two conferences against each other. Emphasis, however on almost. Here is a situation in which I would advise you to actually put on your Eagles gear and root for Jalen Hurts and his buddies. (And I mean that figuratively because I hope you don't actually have any Eagles gear.) The Buccaneers have a win over the Eagles, so if any of the teams milling around that seventh playoff seed are to make it in, it's probably best if it's Philly, for potential seeding purposes. Plus, the Cowboys could really use some real competition in the NFC East. It is probably going to be harder for one of the Bucs or Saints to pull away from each other than it will be for the Cowboys to lap the rest of the field in their division. The Cowboys have four games left against division opponents; if that field is stronger overall it might be harder for Dallas to finish with a better record than whoever wins the NFC South. If you want to apply that same logic to rooting for the Giants in the above game, that's fine, too.
Verdict: It's hard for me to root against the Chargers when I actually see their games because they are almost always going to have the far superior uniforms, but in this case I'll try a little harder. Go Eagles!
Green Bay Packers (7-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-4), Sunday, 4:25 pm. ET
How about this game?! The Chiefs are one of the league's most surprising team at the midway-ish point, and obviously not in a good way. Widely considered favorites to win the AFC for a third straight time (Buffalo might have disagreed), Kansas City has scuffled to a .500 record and not just because it's defense got off to an abysmal start. Now the Chiefs are scuffling on offense as well, failing to top 20 points in three of their last four games amid a surprising rash of turnovers by Patrick Mahomes. Meanwhile, you have the Packers winning seven straight after their strange Week One no-show in New Orleans, including last week's statement win over the previously-undefeated Cardinals. The current tiebreakers actually give the Packers the NFC's top seed after eight weeks. However…and it's an awfully big however…Green Bay will now be without their star quarterback for this marquee matchup, as Aaron Rodgers has landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. That obviously puts a huge spin on this game, not only because it would seem to increase the Chiefs' chances of getting back on track but also because of the unavoidable narrative that will bloom if Jordan Love, the Packers' 2020 first-round pick, actually has a strong showing in Rodgers' absence. You might actually root for that if you're a Buccaneers fan, because it's always good if a prime NFC contender has to contend also with a distracting storyline. So maybe we want Love to light it up…but in the end root for the Chiefs to have the edge on the scoreboard.
Verdict: No Love for the Packers this week.
Arizona Cardinals (7-1) at San Francisco 49ers (3-4), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
I guess this one is pretty obvious, but it's also pretty fun to root for Kyler Murray when you actually get to watch him play. On the other hand, this year's MVP race is probably going to come down to a handful of quarterbacks on the team's top contenders and the same thing that makes Murray fun to watch are going to make him very attractive to the award voters. Tom Brady will be in that MVP conversation if his second half of the season is anything like the first, so maybe one or two ho-hum performances from Murray along the way would help the Bucs' passer get a shot at his fourth MVP award. Arizona also still has games left against the Cowboys and Rams; if we're hoping at least one of these five teams at the top falls off the pace in the weeks to come, the best bet could be Arizona. Let's see if we can get that slide started this week.
Verdict: Go John Lynch and the 49ers!
Tennessee Titans (6-2) at Los Angeles Rams (7-1), Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
Yet another marquee matchup thrown off the rails by the sudden absence of one of the team's biggest star. In this case, that's the Titans, who will begin life without bulldozing running back Derrick Henry in Week Nine. Henry, by far the NFL's leading rusher, suffered a foot fracture in Tennessee's Week Eight win over Indy and will be about anywhere from six weeks to the rest of the season. Buccaneer fans can share in the current misery of Titans fans, for this week at least, because there is nothing they could use more than a Rams loss at this point. Technically, the Rams are in second place in the NFC West due to their loss to Arizona, but there as good a bet as any to be standing at the top and getting that first-round bye when it's all said and done. That's one of the spoils the Buccaneers badly want to win, and the Rams are probably the biggest obstacle with their head-to-head win over Tampa Bay already in hand. Oh, and they just traded for Von Miller to throw him in there with Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd. Yikes. The Titans may have to find a new way to win going forward, but hopefully they figure it out quick and give the Rams all they can handle on Sunday night.
Verdict: Titan Up!
Chicago Bears (3-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3), Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET
I'm going to go with my Eagles theory from above. If any of the current three-win teams are going to work their way into the race for the last couple playoff spots, it's best for the Bucs if it's the Eagles or Bears. (The Falcons are also 3-4 and have a lost to Tampa Bay but there is still one more game to play in that series so it's not as sure of a thing.) If that seems unpalatable to you, that's fine. You can root for an AFC team to hang an L on an NFC team just about any time and feel good about it.
Verdict: Go Bears…but if it turns ugly early for Chicago it's okay to switch allegiances halfway through.