The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took care of their own business in Atlanta on Sunday and got a boost from the Dallas Cowboys the previous Thursday to take a commanding lead in the NFC South. With the Buccaneers defeating over the Falcons, the Cowboys sending the New Orleans Saints to a fifth straight loss and the Carolina Panthers idle, the end result was a four-game division lead for the 9-3 Bucs over the other three clubs, all now 5-7.
The Cowboys victory was a bit of a double-edged sword for the Buccaneers, who are trying to stay ahead of Dallas in the picking order among division leaders. More to the point, Tampa Bay is trying to catch up with the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers in the conference standings but will spend at least one more week in the three seed.
The Buccaneers can clinch their first division title since 2007 in Week 14 if they defeat Buffalo AND Atlanta beats Carolina AND the Jets send the Saints to their sixth straight loss. That combination of results would put the Buccaneers up by five games over the Panthers and Saints with only four weeks to play. The Falcons would remain four games behind but even if they managed to tie up the division at 10-7 they would lose the tiebreaker to the Buccaneers thanks to Tampa Bay's sweep of the season series. The Buccaneers could also clinch a playoff berth in Week 14 without also clinching the division, but it would have to start with Tampa Bay and Buffalo playing to a tie. If that happened, losses by Carolina, New Orleans, Minnesota, San Francisco (or a tie) and Washington (or a tie) would put the Bucs into the postseason.
Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 13 weeks:
1. Arizona (10-2), NFC West Leader
The Cardinals got Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back into the mix in Week 13 and that was more than enough to carry them to a 33-22 win in Chicago. The Cards can now clinch a playoff berth this weekend with a win over the Rams. Arizona needs to maintain a lead over the Packers in the race for the top seed because Green Bay won at Arizona in Week Eight and thus holds a hammer of a head-to-head tiebreaker. In addition to accomplishing that goal for at least one more week, the Cardinals improved their record against conference opponents to 6-2, which is the next tiebreaker among division winners if head-to-head doesn't apply. The Cardinals have a relatively challenging stretch run, with upcoming home games against the Rams and Colts and a Week 17 visit to Dallas. Their other two remaining games at Detroit and at home against Seattle to close it out.
2. Green Bay (9-3), NFC North Leader
The Packers were on a bye in Week 13 and were in the unusual position of having to root for their heated rivals in Chicago. The Bears couldn't do them any favors, losing to the Cardinals, but Green Bay is still in good position to battle Arizona for that first-round bye right down to the wire. The Packers will have a chance to punish their Illinois neighbors for their transgression as they come out of their break with a home game against the Bears. If the Packers gets that win and the Vikings lose to the Steelers Green Bay will have the NFC North locked up with four weeks still to go. The Packers also should be heavily favored in the season's final weekend playing at Detroit, but in between are potentially tough games at Baltimore, at home against Cleveland and then at Lambeau Field against a Vikings team that already beat them in Week 11. In addition to the valuable tiebreaker they hold over the Cardinals, the Packers also have a fine 7-2 mark in conference play, which is second in the conference (in terms of winning percentage) only to Dallas's 6-1 NFC record.
3. Tampa Bay (9-3), NFC South Leader
No change for the Buccaneers here as they technically catch the Packers in the conference standings but still can't claim the second seed due to an inferior record against NFC opponents. The Buccaneers have drawn closer in that regard, improving to 6-3 with Sunday's win in Atlanta, but the Packers' aforementioned 7-2 mark means Tampa Bay can't be guaranteed the second seed even if it wins out. The NFC South title is a different matter, as any of the other three teams in the division that try to make a run for it will have to pick up four games in just five weeks. The Bucs' scenario for clinching the division in Week 14 was noted above: their own win over Buffalo plus an Atlanta win over Carolina and a Saints loss to the Jets. Even if none of those things happens, the Buccaneers could still win the NFC South the following weekend with a victory over the visiting Saints and a loss by Carolina at Buffalo.
4. Dallas (8-4), NFC East Leader
The Cowboys and Rams both got back on track with wins over struggling teams in Week 13. Dallas won at New Orleans, 27-17, sending the Saints to their fifth straight loss. That snapped a two-game losing streak for Dallas, which had lost three of its last four games. Interestingly, though, all three of those losses came against AFC West opponents (Denver, Kansas City and Las Vegas) and thus Dallas has emerged at the other end of that slump with a very helpful 6-1 record in conference play. A more pressing issue for Dallas as it tries to move up the ladder is its Week One loss in Tampa, which gives the Bucs a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Cowboys don't get a head-to-head shot at Green Bay but will play host to Arizona in Week 17. Otherwise, the rest of the Cowboys' schedule is a referendum on the balance of power in the NFC East. That once looked like a cakewalk for Dallas but now they will be playing a surging Washington team on Sunday with only a two-game lead over the Football Team. If Washington wins that one at home, the rematch in Dallas two weeks later would loom very large. Dallas also finishes the season in Philadelphia against a team that could be fighting for its postseason life.
5. L.A. Rams (8-4), Wild Card #1
The tonic for the Rams' slump was a visit from the two-win Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. After losing three straight to contenders Tennessee, San Francisco and Green Bay, the Rams got back in the win column with a 37-7 drubbing of the Jags. However, that three-game slide knocked L.A. off the pace in the NFC West race. They are two games behind the Cardinals with five to play, and they already lost to Arizona at home in Week Four. That was actually the Rams' only loss in their first eight games before they hit their recent skid. The good news, potentially, for Los Angeles is that their next game gives them a shot to cut that division gap in half and even up the season series as they head to Glendale to take on the Cardinals. They'll have quite an audience for that test with the game set to be played on Monday night. The Rams won't have an easy road to the finish line, with their last three games coming at Minnesota and Baltimore and then at home against a 49ers team that seems to have their number.
6. Washington (6-6), Wild Card #2
The Football Team continues to be upwardly mobile in the NFC race, something that seemed highly unlikely when they went into their Week Nine bye with a 2-6 record. However, a rousing victory over the visiting Buccaneers right after that break has sparked a four-game winning streak that has Washington not only in the playoffs but now up to the second Wild Card spot and in good shape for a tiebreaker with a 5-2 record against NFC opponents. Washington, whose defense had been struggling mightily before the bye, has won two consecutive games by 17-15 scores (over Seattle and Las Vegas) and suddenly looks like the most dangerous of the seven NFC teams with either five or six wins. As noted above, Washington also has a chance this weekend to cut the Cowboys' division lead in half and make an actual race out of the NFC East. On the other hand, the Football Team also has two games left against Philadelphia, which could send the division in a totally different direction. More on that below.
7. San Francisco (6-6), Wild Card #3
The 49ers were rivaling Washington for the title of hottest team among the Wild Card tenders with three straight wins, including convincing decisions against the Rams and Vikings, until they ran into their own personal Kryptonite. Seattle, which had plummeted to 3-8 with a series of dispirited efforts rose up to beat the 49ers, 30-23, in Week 13 and halt their division rival's momentum. That stretched Seattle's win streak over San Francisco to four games and, amazingly, the Seahawks have won 15 of the last 17 meetings. The good news for San Francisco is they are done with Seattle for the year and have a couple of promising matchup left against Atlanta and Houston. They also finish the season against the Rams, who they have in turn beaten five times in a row. San Francisco's 5-5 record in conference play is a bit of a red flag.
On the outside…
8. Philadelphia (6-7)
Gardner Minshew got to work setting up a Philly chapter of Minshew Mania with his outstanding relief performance of Jalen Hurts in a 33-18 drubbing of the New York Jets on Sunday. The Eagles' Week 12 loss to the Giants was a painful stumble that could cost them in the end, but they have still won three of their last four and will now get the benefit of a very late bye week. When they come out of their break, the Eagles could change the Wild Card and NFC East story in a hurry with games against Washington in Week 15 and 17. Win both of those and their season-capping game at home against the Cowboys could hold quite a bit of meaning. A loss to San Francisco in Week Two won't do them any favors in potential tiebreaker scenarios
9-10-11-12. Minnesota (5-7), Carolina (5-7), Atlanta (5-7), New Orleans (5-7)
The Vikings head this list of mostly slumping contenders thanks to a Week Six win at Carolina. If these four teams were tied for a spot at the end, the first order of business in breaking ties is to eliminate all but one team from each division involved. The other three teams here are all in the NFC South and Carolina comes out of that knot due to their head-to-head wins over both Atlanta and New Orleans. That makes it a simple Minnesota-Carolina tiebreaker and that win in Week Six seals the deal. Of course, the three NFC South teams all play each other one more time, so the picture as it appears in Week 14 will likely be moot by the end. The Vikings can hope that the Bears continue to crumble down the stretch because they've still got two games left against Chicago. Meanwhile, Carolina will play the Buccaneers twice in the last three weeks.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
There will be myriad opportunities for the Buccaneers to clinch the division in the weeks ahead. Once that is accomplished the larger goal is to grab the first or second seed in the conference. The top seed is the big prize, given that it is the only one that carries a first-round bye, but even improving from third to second would give the Buccaneers a better shot at two home games in the playoffs, assuming they win the first. They start the last five games with a visit from a top AFC contender with Josh Allen and the Bills coming to town. The rest of Tampa Bay's remaining opponents all currently have losing records.