The Tampa Bay Buccaneers almost clinched the NFC South title and a playoff spot in Week 14, but the New Orleans Saints didn't comply. Now the Buccaneers and Saints will do battle in Week 15 with the division crown hanging in the balance.
The Buccaneers would have won their first division title since 2007 if the New York Jets had beaten the Saints to go along with Tampa Bay's win over Buffalo and the Atlanta Falcons' downing of the Carolina Panthers. Unfortunately, New Orleans was able to break a five-game losing streak with a 30-9 win in Detroit. The results of Week 14 did eliminate Atlanta and Carolina from the division race but the Saints remain alive and could help their own cause with a win at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday night.
However, if the Buccaneers defeat the Saints in prime time, they will clinch the division in the most satisfying way possible, by taking it directly from the team that has dominated the South for four straight years. A Tampa Bay win would put the Saints five games back with three to play and, yeah, that says it all.
The Buccaneers could also clinch a playoff spot in Week 15 without beating the Saints, but it's going to take two upsets by underdogs and it won't be decided until Monday night. The Bucs would clinch a postseason spot but not the division title if they lose but Atlanta beats San Francisco on Sunday and Chicago defeats Minnesota on Monday night.
Even without capturing the division title in Week 14, the Bucs saw their playoff circumstances improve considerably last weekend. The Los Angeles Rams' Monday night win over the Arizona Cardinals shook up the top of the NFC standings and the Buccaneers are now in possession of the second-overall seed. Here's how the NFC playoff hunt stands after 14 weeks:
1. Green Bay (10-3), NFC North Leader
Aaron Rodgers went up to the DMV window on Sunday night and presented his title as owner of the Chicago Bears once again in Week 14, and the Packers moved to the top of the NFC standings with a 45-30 win over their overmatched division rivals at Lambeau Field. That jump to the number-one seed in the conference came the next evening when the Rams took care of the Cardinals on Monday Night Football. Green Bay holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over Arizona thanks to its Week Eight win in the desert, but that actually doesn't come into play here. In this case we have a three-way tie between the Packers, Cardinals and Buccaneers, and that changes up the tiebreaker math. Since the Bucs haven't and won't play the Packers or the Cardinals, there is no applicable head-to-head-to-head tiebreaker. Instead we go to the next step, which is record against conference opponents, and Green Bay's 8-2 record tops the 6-3 marks for both the Bucs and the Cardinals.
2. Tampa Bay (10-3), NFC South Leader
The Buccaneers have matched the best 13-game start in franchise history with a 10-3 record but more importantly are tied for the best record in the NFL. And thanks to the Cardinals' loss on Monday night, the Bucs have moved up one spot in the conference pecking order, now slotted second behind the Packers. The second seed is significantly more valuable than the third in that, if the first round results in a win, the second seed is guaranteed another game at home. Of course, the ultimate goal is the top seed and the only first-round bye in the conference, and the Buccaneers may have to run the table to achieve that goal. Even that might not be enough. If the Packers also win out, including victories in Weeks 17 and 18 against NFC North foes Minnesota and Detroit, they will take the top seed with that superior conference record. For the moment, the Buccaneers get the second spot over Arizona thanks to a better strength of victory figure (.492 to .446).
3. Arizona (10-3), NFC West Leader
Tough week for the Cardinals, who not only coughed up the top spot in the overall NFC standings but also let the Rams back into contention for the NFC West title. Arizona is now just a game up on Los Angeles, and their last four games include the Colts, Cowboys and a possibly frisky Seahawks squad. Arizona does get to begin its final month with a visit to the 1-11-1 Detroit Lions, but the Cardinals are now playing catch-up in the overall NFC race. It's worth noting, however, that the common-games tiebreaker will be in play by the end of the season, and that tiebreaker comes before strength of victory. As far as that is concerned, pay particular attention to Arizona's remaining games against Indianapolis and Dallas, two teams that the Buccaneers have already beaten.
4. Dallas (9-4), NFC East Leader
The Cowboys backed up Mike McCarthy's guarantee and in the process made the NFC East title almost a foregone conclusion. Dallas is up by three games on Washington with four weeks to play, though the two teams do meet again in Week 16. It's not over, but it's close. More to the point, the Cowboys kept pace in the race for the top two seeds, staying just a game behind the Packers and Bucs. Dallas has one game left against each of the other three teams in the NFC East and while it's unlikely that either Washington or Philadelphia will make up their current three-game deficit in the division standings, any of the three would surely love to spoil the Cowboys' hopes for a higher seed. The fourth game is at home against the Cardinals in Week 17, a contest that could be critical in shaping the final conference standings.
5. L.A. Rams (9-4), Wild Card #1
The Rams had snapped a three-game skid the previous week with a 30-point drubbing of lowly Jacksonville at home, but it's safe to say that beating the Cardinals in Arizona was far more uplifting to a team that was once 7-1 and considered a favorite to take the conference's top seed. That's still a long shot considering they would first have to catch the Cardinals and then leap over at least two and possibly three teams, but it's not out of the question. And the NFC West title is definitely back in play now that Los Angeles has evened up the season series with Arizona and pulled within a game of the lead. The Rams' final stretch is fascinating, featuring four teams that have produced wildly disparate results this season and could either be very formidable or an easy mark: Seattle, Minnesota, Baltimore and San Francisco
6. San Francisco (7-6), Wild Card #2
San Francisco and Washington flipped places once again in the standings, with the 49ers standing above what is now a logjam of five 6-7 teams. San Francisco now has a chance to bury one of those five teams with a home game against the 6-7 Falcons in Week 15. The 49ers are just 5-5 in conference play but that's actually as good as or better than every team behind them except the 5-3 Washington Football Team. San Francisco also owns head-to-head wins over Minnesota and Philadelphia, two of those 6-7 teams.
7. Washington (6-7), Wild Card #3
After a four-game winning streak saw Washington rise all the way to the conference's sixth seed, the Football Team saw its momentum slowed in Week 14 with a home loss to the Cowboys. Washington has slim hopes for the NFC East title now but still gets the seventh seed out of all of the 6-7 teams thanks to its 5-3 record against NFC teams. One of those 6-7 teams is the Philadelphia Eagles, and those two teams will now meet twice in the next three weeks, so stay tuned.
On the outside…
8-9-10-11. Minnesota (6-7), Philadelphia (6-7), Atlanta (6-7), New Orleans (6-7)
There's no reason to count out any of these teams in the muddled middle of the NFC race with four weeks still to play. In trying to rank these four tied teams the first thing you do is eliminate all but one team from each division, and Atlanta's head-to-head win over New Orleans takes care of the Saints. The Falcons then drop out of the three-team tie thanks to an inferior record against NFC teams. The Vikings and Eagles go to a tiebreaker of record against common opponents, and Minnesota comes out on top, for the moment at least.
12-13. Carolina (5-8), Seattle (5-8)
We can't eliminate these teams yet, given that they're only a game out of the last Wild Card spot with four weeks to go. They seem to be headed in opposite directions, however, with Carolina losing three in a row and Seattle logging back-to-back wins over San Francisco and Houston. The Panthers have two games remaining against the Buccaneers, so Tampa Bay fans would rather Seattle rises out of this difficult position if either team is going to do so.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
As noted, the Buccaneers could lock up the NFC South with a win on Sunday night over the Saints, or they could lose and still clinch a postseason spot with losses by San Francisco and Minnesota. Whether or not one the Bucs have anything clinched by the end of the weekend there will be no time to rest. The fight for the top seed in the conference is going to be fierce and it might just take one slip-up to fall off the pace. After the game against New Orleans, the Bucs will finish with two meetings with the Carolina Panthers, first on the road and then at home in the season finale, sandwiched around a trip to the Meadowlands to play the New York Jets.