There is just one week left in the NFL's 2021 regular season and, as you would expect, that means the array of possible playoff-field outcomes has dwindled quite a bit. There are only eight teams still alive for seven spots in the NFC, and the Green Bay Packers have already clinched the conference's first-overall seed.
And yet there's still a lot to be determined in the NFC in Week 18, and quite a bit of variance in the potential outcomes for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Depending upon what happens this coming Sunday, the Buccaneers will head into the playoffs as either the second, third or fourth seed, and they'll face either the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles or Arizona Cardinals in Round One.
Keep an eye on the 49ers, in particular. Not only is their game against the Rams the most important one on the Week 18 schedule for the Buccaneers outside of their own home contest against the Panthers, but San Francisco is also a potential first-round visitor to Raymond James Stadium.
There was no Thursday night game this week and there will be no Monday Night Football. There are two games on Saturday, one of which factors into the NFC race, but the Sunday night game features two AFC teams. That means everything is going to unfold over about seven hours on Sunday afternoon and early evening.
And there are only five games out of the final 16 that will have any effect on the final standings in the NFC. One of those is the Buccaneers' own game against Carolina, which means there are only four contests of consequence for Tampa Bay fans over the weekend. For that reason, we're not going to spend much time on the other 11 contests this time around. There are no strength of schedule or strength of victory tiebreaker considerations anymore, so we're only talking about wins and losses at this point. This is your 2021 Week 17 Viewing Guide.
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Denver Broncos (7-9), Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET
As I mentioned, there are a lot of games that don't matter to the Bucs' Week 18 pursuit of playoff-seed happiness, and that includes all eight that feature all-AFC matchups, such as this one. That said, maybe we can take the long view on this one. No one is even close to assuming another NFC title for the Buccaneers in 2021, but if that were to happen, who would you want the Bucs to face in the Super Bowl? The AFC is loaded with talented and dangerous teams, but I can't help thinking that Patrick Mahomes is going to be the biggest problem when it's all said and done. If you're with me, you want the Chiefs' playoff journey to be as difficult as possible.
Verdict: Go Broncos!
Dallas Cowboys (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (9-7), Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
This is going to sound surprising, but this game really doesn't mean that much to the Buccaneers. There are only two scenarios that end up with the Cowboys passing the Bucs in the NFC standings with a win, and they both involve Tampa Bay losing, the 49ers beating the Rams and the Seahawks beating the Cardinals. That trio of outcomes seems unlikely. On the other hand, if the Eagles win, the Bucs can fall no lower than the third seed, so I guess that's slightly better. Philadelphia has already clinched a playoff berth despite being behind in the standings to the 49ers, who have not yet clinched.
Verdict: Who cares how much it matters, it just feels good to root against the Cowboys. Go Eagles!
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) at Baltimore Ravens (8-8), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Cleveland Browns (7-9), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Tennessee Titans (11-5) at Houston Texans (4-12), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Indianapolis Colts (9-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
The AFC playoff picture is a little more fun, with four teams still alive for the final two spots. The most important game in that picture is the Chargers at the Raiders, but that won't happen until Sunday night. In the meantime, the Steelers and Ravens will try to keep slim postseason hopes alive in the early afternoon, the Colts will try to lock up one of the two remaining spots with a win and the Titans and Bengals will both be hunting the first-overall seed in the conference. This is fun stuff, but it doesn't mean much to the Buccaneers.
Verdict: I don't know, the Bengals seem fun, right? Yeah, right! Go Bengals!
Green Bay Packers (13-3) at Detroit Lions (2-13-1), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Chicago Bears (6-10) at Minnesota Vikings (7-9), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Washington Football Team (6-10) at New York Giants (4-12), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
The NFL rearranged the timing of its NFC games in order to make sure that all the games that mattered were playing at the same time. That leaves us with this early-afternoon slate, which doesn't matter at all. Will Green Bay rest some players, and will it even matter against Dan Campbell's knee-biters? Are administrative changes coming for the Bears and/or Vikings, and does the outcome of this contest change any of that? What will the WFT be called a few weeks from now? Can the Giants score more than 10 points? These are not particularly entertaining questions.
Verdict: Go…to the mall to exchange the bad Christmas gifts you got. Just make sure to get back for the late-afternoon games.
Seattle Seahawks (6-10) at Arizona Cardinals (11-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Know this: If the Buccaneers lose to the Panthers, they can be no better than three seed in the NFC. And they only way they fall all the way to the four seed is if the Cardinals lose to the Seahawks and the Rams also fall to the 49ers. Oh, AND Dallas beats Philadelphia. As long as the Buccaneers take care of their own business, they cannot fall behind Arizona in the seeding, even if the Cardinals overtake the Rams for the NFC West title. In fact, that would be better for Tampa Bay, given their head-to-head loss to the Rams. We rooted hard for the Cardinals to beat the Cowboys last week and they came through. Let's get behind Kyler Murray one more time!
Verdict: Go Desert Rats! (That's what my uncle in St. Louis has called the Cardinals ever since they left The Lou for Phoenix in 1988. We're not bitter.)
New Orleans Saints (8-8) at Atlanta Falcons (7-9), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
There is not a single scenario in which the Buccaneers would face the Saints in the opening round. The best New Orleans can do is win the seventh seed in the conference, which would match them up with the second seed. The only way Tampa Bay can get the second seed is if San Francisco beats the Rams, and if that happens the Saints would be eliminated. EVEN SO…raise your hand if you want the Saints to be in the NFC playoff field. Mine are at my side.
Verdict: Go Falcons!
New York Jets (4-12) at Buffalo Bills (10-6), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
New England Patriots (10-6) at Miami Dolphins (8-8), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Fun fact: The Bucs have beaten all of these teams this year! Tampa Bay has never swept an AFC division in a single season before, so that's really cool. Buffalo and New England have something to play for even though both have clinched a playoff spot, as the East division is the only one still up for grabs in the AFC. Your rooting interests here will vary – perhaps you like the idea of a Brady vs. Belichick Super Bowl. Personally, I'm more interested in another Bills-Chiefs AFC title game.
Verdict: You do you. I'm rooting for the Bills and Dolphins.
San Francisco 49ers (9-7) at Los Angeles Rams (12-4), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
This is the one, folks. This is the missing piece to your jigsaw puzzle that you either find under the couch or you don't. This is the only game other than the Buccaneers' own contest that really matters on Sunday. The most important reason this is true is that the Bucs can only move up to the second seed if the Rams lose. The second seed is more valuable than the third in that it guarantees a team a second home playoff game if it wins the first one. In this case, though, there's also the added cherry that a San Francisco victory eliminates the Saints, which I think we can all agree is a good thing.
Verdict: GO GO GO NINERS!!!!
Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) at Las Vegas Raiders (9-7), Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
Again, this doesn't matter to the Bucs, but the NFL sure knows what it's doing with its schedule flexes. This is the one true win-and-you're-in, lose-and-you're-out game of Week 18. The Raiders have a back door into the playoffs but it involves a Colts loss to the Jaguars, so they will probably have to take care of their own business. The Chargers are in with a in, out with a loss, plain and simple. Thrilling!
Verdict: Go drama! That is, let's see the final game of the 2021 NFL season come down to the very end! Maybe a two-point, do-or-die conversion attempt. Who's with me?