The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed back to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and can lock up the fifth conference seed and a date with the NFC East champ with a win on Sunday against Atlanta. There are still six different possible destinations for the Buccaneers in the opening round of the playoffs, as we discussed in this week's Playoff Push update. Head Coach Bruce Arians says his team doesn't really care where they're headed in the postseason but nonetheless are highly motivated to get an 11th win and that higher seed.
While the Bucs only possible spots in the NFC seeding are fifth or sixth, there is still a lot of variance as to how the entire seven-team field can shake out. If the Bucs are the five seed, they will end up in either Dallas, Washington or New York. If they are the six seed, their potential road opponents are Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle. What are the best and worst options out of those possible trips? Your mileage may vary but we're going to offer up some suggestions as to who to root for as the NFL amazingly counts down to its 256th game in 17 weeks in the highly unusual 2020 campaign. This is your Week 17 Viewing Guide.
Miami Dolphins (10-5) at Buffalo Bills (12-3), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Baltimore Ravens (10-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) at Cleveland Browns (10-5), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
New York Jets (2-13) at New England Patriots (6-9), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
About 10 years ago, the NFL tweaked its schedule-making process to make sure that every team was playing against a division opponent in the final week of the regular season. The idea was to make it more likely that each game would have some meaning to the playoff race so that there would be fewer instances of teams resting players and thus providing an inferior product. And there are definitely some meaningful games here, with the top-heavy AFC tries to sort out which of its eight teams with 10-plus wins already will make the postseason. Pittsburgh actually is resting some players, with their division title already won and Kansas City already in possession of the top seed. The Steelers-Browns game would have been a lot more interesting if Pittsburgh hadn't rallied against Indianapolis and if the Browns hadn't lost to the Jets in Week 16. The thing is, none of this AFC action matters to the Buccaneers at all. It could have only been relevant in relation to potential strength-of-victory and strength-of-schedule tiebreakers, and we now know it's not going to come down to that.
Verdict: Go whatever combination of results makes the late-afternoon round of AFC matchups more exciting! And go Mason Rudolph! What could possibly go wrong in a start versus Cleveland?
Minnesota Vikings (6-9) at Detroit Lions (5-10), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
It's undeniable that the Buccaneers caught the Lions at their worst possible moment last weekend, with a roster depleted by injuries, a quarterback who was knocked out after one possession, a third-string head coach and a research analyst calling the defensive plays. The Bucs should have an easy time of it, and they did, in the process putting up some gaudy numbers. Ten years from now, is anyone going to remember the Lions' circumstances when they see that the Bucs had a team-record 588 yards and seven offensive touchdowns? Of course, 10 years from now the NFL may have further evolved to where 588 yards and 47 points isn't that uncommon. Either way, doesn't it feel like the Lions deserve some better fortune this week? At least an actual coaching staff? Plus, there's still that Kirk Cousins "You like that!" thing from 2015 that still doesn't sit well with some of us. This game is of no consequence to the playoff race, so follow your heart.
Verdict: Go Lions (unless you really like the Vikings…it doesn't really matter)!
Dallas Cowboys (6-9) at New York Giants (5-10), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
We finally come to a game that is of interest to the Buccaneers, though it's not completely clear if the Bucs should have any specific rooting interest. The winner of this game will sit around until the evening, waiting for the Washington-Philadelphia night game to see if its season is going to continue. If Washington loses, the victory in the classic Cowboys-Giants showdown will be the NFC East champion. That the Giants could win a division with a 6-10 record is pretty juicy and if you like chaos you're probably rooting for them. If you're the Buccaneers considering a possible date against either of these teams, which do you want? The Giants have quarterback Daniel Jones back in the lineup and a defense that looked like it was really coming together before a recent slide. The Cowboys have Andy Dalton and his career 0-4 record and 56.4 passer rating in the postseason but a scarier group of offensive weapons. The Dallas defense has been vulnerable for most of the season, but the Cowboys also play in Texas inside a dome, so weather won't be an issue.
Verdict: Go Red Rifle! Honestly, you could flip a coin on who you would rather face here. The Bucs have already won a game at New York this year, but it was awfully tight. Against the Cowboys, the Bucs have the offensive firepower to match Dallas and the better defense, particularly against the run.
New Orleans Saints (11-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-10), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Why are we even discussing this? Is there any reason to root for the Saints? Depends how big-picture you want to get, and where you'd rather see the Bucs head in Week One if they happen to end up as the six seed. The Saints could still get the first-round bye if they win, the Seahawks beat San Francisco and the Packers lose to Chicago. If you want to avoid a first-round game in New Orleans, that's one way to do it. Of course, be careful what you wish for because now you're heading to frigid Lambeau Field. Our opinion: That slim chance of a first-round bye a) isn't worth worrying about, and b) might not even be the best possible outcome. You're right, this is a pointless conversation. A Saints loss is enjoyable in and of itself but we would like to see them look a little more vulnerable than they did on Christmas Day against Minnesota.
Verdict: Go Panthers!
Green Bay Packers (12-3) at Chicago Bears (8-7), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
The Bears are no longer a direct threat to the Buccaneers and, honestly, we wouldn't mind a rematch with Chicago. That game, of all of them on the Bucs' schedule this year, is the one that felt like it got away. Of course, a later-round matchup between teams seeded fifth through seventh is going to take a bunch of upsets, so it's not likely to happen anyway. And given how unlikely an eventual matchup of Wild card teams is, wouldn't you rather watch Kyler Murray in the playoffs than Mitchell Trubisky. That's what we'd get if Chicago loses and the Cardinals win, which is also how the Rams can back into the playoffs without winning. If your goal is to delay that trip to Lambeau as long as possible – and, I mean, did you see those statistics about Aaron Rodgers' utter dominance in cold games? – you're better off with Green Bay hanging onto that top seed.
Verdict: Da na, da na na na! Go, Pack, Go!
Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) at Denver Broncos (5-10), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Tennessee Titans (10-5) at Houston Texans (4-11), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14) at Indianapolis Colts (10-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Los Angeles Chargers (6-9) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-1), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
And here's your late-afternoon block of AFC games that don't matter to the Buccaneers. Since none of this matters to the Bucs, let me take this space to ask you this: Don't you just hate it when broadcast analysts say, "You just can't X there?" Like, "You just can't drop that ball." Or, "You just can't make that kind of mistake." I mean, clearly you can do those things and players do them all the time. There are two sides trying to win a game and sometimes one of them plays better than the other. You don't want to drop that ball or make that mistake, but it's going to happen sometimes. What does saying, "You can't do that," add to the analysis of the moment?
Arizona Cardinals (8-7) at Los Angeles Rams (9-6), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
We'll know by the time this game kicks off if the outcome matters to the Buccaneers. If Tampa Bay beats Atlanta in the early afternoon, it won't matter, as the Bucs will have already locked in the five seed. However, at this moment we're operating in a vacuum of information so we'll answer this one as if it does matter. In that case, root for Arizona, because the Buccaneers still get that five seed with a loss of their own and a loss by the Rams. And, again, this is the scenario that slams the door on the Trubiskies if they simultaneously lose to Green Bay.
Verdict: Go Desert Rats, which is what my uncle in St. Louis still calls the Arizona club that fled Missouri in 1987. I know, pretty clever.
Seattle Seahawks (11-4) at San Francisco 49ers (6-9), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
We already decided that we want Green Bay to hold onto the first-round bye. If the Packers do happen to lose in Chicago, they would still get that top seed if Seattle also loses. So there's one reason to root against the Seahawks. Is there any reason to root for them? Not that we can think of. If the Saints lose to Carolina, the Seahawks beat the 49ers, the Bucs lose to the Falcons and the Rams beat the Cardinals, that would lead to Tampa Bay going to New Orleans in Round One? Would you rather do that or go to Seattle? There's no "12th Man" in Seattle this year and the Seahawks did lose to the Giants at home in Week 13. (We're choosing to ignore that they won their other seven home games.) Let's not root for any scenario that makes a Round One trip to the Superdome more likely.
Verdict: Go John Lynch's 49ers!
Washington Football Team (6-9) at Philadelphia Eagles (4-10-1), Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
A 6-9 center may control the paint but a 6-9 NFL team doesn't usually control its own playoff chances. Or, really, have any playoff chances. But that's the world we live in right now in the dying hours of 2020. Washington wins the NFC East and locks into the four seed by beating the Eagles, thereby ending the hopes of whichever team won the Cowboys-Giants game. In discussing that contest, we vaguely came down on the side of a first-round trip to Dallas, but what about the choice between Dallas and Washington. The Dallas destination still has the better weather consideration, but the Football Team is in disarray right now at the NFL's most important position, quarterback. That's particularly true if Alex Smith can't return from his leg injury. Dwayne Haskins has been released and the only other QBs on the roster now besides Smith are Taylor Heinicke and Steven Montez. Heinicke has 77 career NFL passes and is a previous backup with the St. Louis BattleHawks. Steven is the second best Montez on the Washington roster. Washington has a truly good defense, much better than the Cowboys, and that's concern, but their QB situation may make the offense toothless. So pick your poison.
Verdict: We're leaving this one up to each of you as individuals. If you think the Washington quarterback situation makes the Football Team a more attractive matchup, root for them. If you'd rather have a crack at that Dallas defense inside a dome, root for the Cowboys.