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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Playoff Push 2023: Bucs Seize Control of Own Fate in NFC South

With four weeks to go, the Buccaneers are in a three-way tie for first in their division and have a tiebreaker edge that would give them the title if they win out


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers woke up on Sunday morning in Atlanta and chose relevance.

The Buccaneers knew their chances of winning the NFC South for a third straight season would swing wildly that afternoon based on the outcome of the Week 14 game. With a win, they would surge into a tie for first place in the division with Atlanta and – as it turned out – New Orleans; with a loss they would functionally be three games out of first with four weeks to play.

The Buccaneers won the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 29-25, on a last-minute touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield to Cade Otton and thus collected the far more appealing of those two options. The end result is what should be a wild final month in the division race, as both the Bucs and Falcons still have games left against New Orleans and Carolina and the potential outcomes are myriad.

Elsewhere in the conference, the San Francisco 49ers moved into the top spot in the overall standings and the Dallas Cowboys took over first place in the NFC East with a signature win over the Philadelphia Eagles. With four weeks to go there are still four teams that could realistically win the only first-round bye in the conference and another seven teams between 7-6 and 6-7 possibly fighting for Wild Card berths.

Tampa Bay's upcoming trip to Green Bay is now one of the most consequential matchups in the NFC in Week 15, with implications for both the NFC South race and the Wild Card chase. We will also get Eagles at Seahawks and an important interconference battle with Dallas at Buffalo. Looking ahead to that intriguing weekend, here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 14 weeks:

1. San Francisco (10-3), NFC West Leader

The 49ers are now one of three 10-3 teams in the NFC, but they have banked very convincing wins over the other two, beating Dallas 42-10 in Week Five and Philadelphia 42-19 in Week 13. San Francisco won its first five games in convincing fashion, scoring at least 30 points in all of them, then suffered through a three-game losing streak while both left tackle Trent Williams and wide receiver Deebo Samuel were injured. Healthy again, the 49ers have now put together another five-game winning streak in which all five victories were by a double-digit margin. Three of the 49ers' last four opponents are currently under .500, though the 6-7 Rams are surging. San Francisco has the obvious head-to-head tiebreaker edge and also owns an 8-1 mark in conference play and a strength-of-victory number (.512) that is the best among all contenders. The 49ers clinched a playoff berth with the Packers' loss on Monday night.

2. Dallas (10-3), NFC East Leader

The Cowboys are also on a roll, matching San Francisco with a current five-game winning streak, and their 33-13 win over Philadelphia in Week 14 was convincing. However, they do not control their own destiny in terms of winning the NFC East because the Eagles would take the division by winning out thanks to an eventual better record against conference opponents. Right now, Dallas has the division lead because it is 4-1 against NFC East teams, compared to 3-1 for Philly. The Cowboys have a daunting final month, with road games at Buffalo and Miami and a home game against the Lions.

3. Detroit (9-4), NFC North Leader

The Lions have stumbled of late, with intra-division losses to Green Bay and Chicago over the past three weeks. Detroit has still won three of its last five, but all three victories were shootouts that ended in margins of victory of five points or fewer. That said, the Lions' two-game lead in the North is pretty strong with just four games to play, and they can take care of the 7-6 Vikings themselves in Weeks 16 and 18. Despite being just one game off of the best record in the NFL, the Lions have an uphill battle to win the top seed in the conference and a first-round bye, based on a 6-3 record within the NFC. A frisky Denver team will visit Detroit this weekend and the Lions have to travel to Dallas in Week 17.

4. Tampa Bay (6-7), NFC South Leader

The Buccaneers are technically in first place in the NFC South heading into Week 15, but they could lose that spot even with a victory in Green Bay. The current tiebreaker that is gifting Tampa Bay the top spot is a slightly better record in games against common opponents with the Falcons, which boils down to the Bucs beating Tennessee and the Falcons losing to the Titans. However, if Atlanta beats Carolina next Sunday, their 4-1 record in division games will technically be better than the Bucs' 3-1 mark, regardless of what happens in Green Bay. The reason the Buccaneers control their own fate in the division race is that if they win out over the next four weeks they will drop the Saints out of contention (a Week 17 game against New Orleans in Tampa) and finish with a better record against common opponents than Atlanta.

5. Philadelphia (10-3), Wild Card #1

The Eagles, as noted above, temporarily lost the top spot in the NFC East but maintained control of their own destiny in the division. After a 10-1 start, Philadelphia has lost showdowns to the other top teams in the NFC, each by 20 or more points. However, the Eagles' final four games include two matchups with the 4-8 Giants plus a visit from the 3-10 Arizona Cardinals. Philadelphia's trip to Seattle this coming weekend looks like the most important game remaining on their schedule. The Eagles haven't officially clinched a playoff spot yet, but with a four-game lead on all the teams that are just out of the Wild Card fight, that seems like a formality.

6. Minnesota (7-6), Wild Card #2

Minnesota followed a five-game winning streak with losses to Denver and Chicago but was able to squeak past the Raiders in Week 14, 3-0. The Vikings have the second Wild Card spot by a game over five other teams, but they also have a 6-3 record in conference games, which is better than all the teams trailing them. The final month is a little daunting, including two dates with the Lions and this weekend's trip to Cincinnati to play a streaking Bengals team.

7. Green Bay (6-7), Wild Card #3

The Packers lost on a last-second field goal to the Giants on Monday night to fall back under .500, but they held on to the final Wild Card spot for the moment. Green Bay is one of six teams in the conference with a 6-7 record, including the Buccaneers, who are currently slotted fourth as the NFC South leader. The Packers have a head-to-head victory over the Rams, a better conference record than Atlanta and New Orleans and a superior strength of victory mark than the Seahawks. Green Bay also has a chance to catch the Vikings with a meeting in Minnesota in Week 17, and their other three remaining opponents all have losing records.


On the outside…

8. L.A. Rams (6-7)

The Rams didn't look like playoff contenders after a 3-6 start, but they reeled off three straight wins over Seattle, Arizona and Cleveland and took the AFC's current number-one seed, Baltimore, to overtime in Week 14. Los Angeles has to play the powerful 49ers in their season finale but before that have home games against Washington and New Orleans plus a trip to the Meadowlands to play the Giants.

9. Seattle (6-7)

Seattle is the inverse of the Rams, having followed a 6-3 start with a four-game losing streak. The competition was tough in that span, with two games against San Francisco and one in Dallas, but the two losses to the 49ers essentially ended the NFC West competition. Seattle does have five wins against NFC opponents, more than any of the other four 6-7 teams currently in the Wild Card race.

10-11. Atlanta (6-7), New Orleans (6-7)

The best hope for the Falcons and Saints is the NFC South title, which is still very much up for grabs. While the Buccaneers are the only one of the three contenders who can guarantee the division crown by winning out, the Falcons would actually move into first place for the time being with a win over Carolina this Sunday. They would temporarily have the tiebreaker edge with a 4-1 record within the division, compared to 3-1 for the Buccaneers. The Saints are behind both the Buccaneers and Falcons in both division record (2-2) and conference record (3-5), but they do get to go head to head with both Tampa Bay and Atlanta in the final four weeks.

What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:

Tampa Bay will try to make it three wins in a row with a trip to Green Bay, which has played well of late despite Monday night's loss. As noted above, the Bucs could beat the Packers and still technically slip behind Atlanta in the division race due to shifting tiebreakers. However, they would not lose control of their own destiny within the division race.

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