The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming out of their bye week with a one-game lead in the NFC South and nine weeks still to go. It's early, but not too early start taking a weekly look at how the postseason hunt is shaping up in the NFC.
The NFL added an seventh playoff spot to each conference in last year, which in turn reduced the number of first-round byes to just one each. All four division-winners still get to start the playoffs at home, however, and that will likely be more important in 2021 than it was last year when the pandemic led to many empty or emptier-than-usual stadiums. Thus, the Bucs' first goal is to break the New Orleans Saints' four-game stranglehold on the division title. If the season ended today, after Week Nine, Tampa Bay would have that title, and here's how the entire NFC playoff field would shake out:
1. Arizona (8-1), NFC West Leader
Other than the idle Buccaneers, the Cardinals were the only team in the NFC's top six to avoid Upset Sunday in Week Nine. That put Arizona back on the top and alone, where they had been prior to losing their first game in Week Eight, to Green Bay. Having the Packers just behind them in the standings shrinks the Cardinals' margin for error, since that Week Eight game gave Green Bay the head-to-head tiebreaker. Arizona's next three games are all against NFC teams just outside the playoff picture at the moment – Carolina, Seattle and Chicago – but all could get right back into the Wild Card race with a couple of wins in a row. The Cardinals also have just a one-game lead in their division over the Rams, but in that case they have already banked a head-to-head victory.
2. Green Bay (7-2), NFC North Leader
The Packers lost in Jordan Love's first start on Sunday in Kansas City and looked positively anemic on offense without Aaron Rodgers. (And disastrous on special teams, but that's another story.) Rodgers is expected to come off the reserve/COVID-19 list just in time to suit up against Seattle this Sunday, but the Packers have worked up some wiggle room in the NFC North anyway. All three of their fellow North-siders are 3-5 or worse and Green Bay has already beaten Chicago and Detroit. The Packers have a very late bye this year, in Week 13, and before they get there they still have to play a Seattle team that is getting Russell Wilson back, a Minnesota team that usually musters up a good effort against Green Bay, and the powerful and balanced Los Angeles Rams.
3. Tampa Bay (6-2), NFC South Leader
The Buccaneers certainly enjoyed watching the Saints, Packers, Cowboys and Rams all stumble in Week Nine, and they even made a move up the standings thanks to all those lovely "Ls." The Cowboys' loss to Denver was their first defeat since going down in the NFL Kickoff Game in Tampa in Week One, and it dropped them into a tie with the Buccaneers in the overall standings. Thanks to that Bucs' win in the Kickoff Game, they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, which would be the first one applied in this scenario. That would then pair the Bucs up with the second Wild Card, which is currently New Orleans, instead of the first Wild Card, currently the Rams. Those happen to be the two teams that have beaten Tampa Bay this season.
4. Dallas (6-2), NFC East Leader
The Cowboys' Week Nine loss have been the most surprising of the four noted here because of how thoroughly they were dominated for most of the game before putting up a couple garbage-time touchdowns in a 30-16 decision. The Packers didn't have Rodgers and the Saints were without Jameis Winston, but Dallas was getting star quarterback Dak Prescott back from injury. If that game proves to be just a one-week blip for the Cowboys they shouldn't have too much trouble staying atop the NFC East, as they are currently up by 3.5 games over the Eagles and Giants and by four games over Washington. Up next for the Cowboys are the Falcons, Chiefs and Raiders, all of whom are right on the playoff bubble in their respective conferences.
5. L.A. Rams (7-2), Wild Card #1
The Rams are tied for the second-best record in the NFL but having the Cardinals in their division means they currently have to settle for a Wild Card spot. Los Angeles would have stayed tied with Arizona if they had not surprisingly dropped a home game to the Derrick Henry-less Titans, but even then they would still be in this same spot thanks to the Cardinals' head-to-head tiebreaker. Seattle and San Francisco have fallen off the pace so this looks like it will be a dramatic two-team division race, with the winner possibly getting a bye and the loser going on the road in the Wild Card round. The Rams play San Francisco this week and then get a bye before heading to Green Bay. If the standings stay this way, the Rams would start the playoffs in Dallas.
6. New Orleans (5-3), Wild Card #2
The Saints had a chance to switch places with the Buccaneers in these conference standings but lost it when Younghoe Koo trumped their incredible fourth-quarter comeback with the game-winning field goal Sunday in the Superdome. Had the Saints improved to 6-2 instead, their head-to-head win over the Buccaneers in Week Eight would have been the current tiebreaker and they would have the division lead and the third seed. The Bucs and Saints will meet again at Raymond James Stadium in Week 15 so we'll have to wait and see if that tiebreaker holds true for New Orleans. Before that, the Saints have some other tough matchups, including a road game at Tennessee and home contests against the Bills and Cowboys.
7. Atlanta (4-4), Wild Card #3
The same Week Nine upset win that kept the Saints out of first place also put Atlanta into the playoff picture. After losing three of their first four, the Falcons have now won three of their last four to get back to .500, which is currently good enough to put them into the postseason. Wins over the Dolphins and Jets and a loss to the Panthers may not have signaled that the Falcons were rising as contenders, but last week's victory in the Superdome was a bit more convincing evidence. Their move into this spot displaces another NFC South team, as the Panthers started Week Nine in seventh place in the conference before its loss to New England. The Falcons get the Cowboys next in Dallas before playing a couple more AFC teams, the Patriots at home and the Jaguars on the road.
On the outside…
8. Carolina (4-5)
The Panthers may have just fallen out of the playoff picture this past weekend but they've been sliding inexorably in that direction since their 3-0 start. They've lost five of six since, with only a narrow win over Atlanta breaking it up, and have to go to Arizona this coming weekend.
9-10-11. Minnesota (3-5), Seattle (3-5), San Francisco (3-5)
If Carolina continues its slide, this next group of teams might be a friskier bunch in contending for Wild Card berths. Each team still has nine games left, after all, and there are varying reasons for optimism for each one. For the Vikings, all five of their losses have come against teams that currently have winning records, and all five have been by seven points or fewer. That includes a one-point loss to Arizona, three-point losses to Baltimore and Cincinnati and a four-point loss to Dallas. Unfortunately, things aren't getting easier in the weeks ahead, as Minnesota's next two opponents are the Chargers and Packers. Seattle, again, is getting Russell Wilson back just in time to square off against the Packers and Cardinals, and the back half of their schedule is light on contenders. It's a little harder to make an optimistic case for the 49ers after they lost for the fifth time in their last six games last Sunday – to an Arizona team without Kyler Murray – but they do at least get to go head-to-head with Minnesota, Seattle and Atlanta, so perhaps they can control their own fate to some extent.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers don't have another game inside the division until Week 13 in Atlanta, but they will try to widen their lead before that rematch with the Saints in Week 15. While the Buccaneers play at 2-6 Washington this weekend, the Saints have to go on the road to Tennessee to play the 7-2 Titans, winners of five straight. The Bucs will also be rooting for Carolina against Arizona and Seattle against Green Bay this weekend as they try to climb up the overall standings to that first-round bye.