Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Playoff Push 2021: Bucs Drop to Third Seed

The Bucs now have a much rockier road to a possible top seed in the NFC after their Week 15 loss to the Saints, but they do have multiple opportunities to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have clinched the 2021 NFC South title in Week 14 if the New York Jets had been able to upset the New Orleans Saints. That didn't happen unfortunately, but that still gave the Buccaneers a chance to take the division crown in a more direct way, by beating the Saints on Sunday Night Football in Week 15.

That did not happen, either. The Saints dealt Tampa Bay its first shutout loss in 12 years and staved off division elimination, although the Buccaneers still remain heavy favorites to break New Orleans' four-year grip on that title. The Buccaneers face the Panthers twice and the Jets once in the next week, and a win in any of those games makes them South champs. Meanwhile the Saints get home games against the Dolphins and Panthers before finishing up the regular season in Atlanta. Any loss by New Orleans in that span, regardless of the Bucs' own results, would also wrap things up for Tampa Bay.

Which is not to say the 2021 NFC South crown is already wrapped in a box with a neat little bow underneath the Buccaneers' Christmas tree. There is still work to be done, beginning on Sunday. The battle for the top seeds in the conference rages on as well, though the losses by Tampa Bay and Arizona plus Green Bay's own narrow escape from Baltimore put the Packers very much in the driver's seat for the only NFC Week One bye.

The Buccaneers could also earn a playoff spot this weekend without capturing the division. That scenario would require a Tampa Bay loss at Carolina and a New Orleans win at home against Miami. That would put the Bucs at 10-5 and improve the Saints to 8-7. In that scenario, the Bucs would still clinch a playoff spot if the Rams beat the Vikings and the Giants beat the Eagles. If those two results occurred, the Vikings and Eagles would be 7-8 with two games to play, meaning they could finish with a maximum of nine wins. If so, there would only be seven teams, including the Buccaneers, that were already at or that could get to 10 wins. Tampa Bay would also clinch a playoff spot if a Minnesota loss is coupled with a Dallas win.

Here's how the NFC playoff hunt stands after 15 weeks:

1. Green Bay (11-3), NFC North Leader

The Packers have to be feeling awfully good after the results of Week 15. They avoided an upset loss in Baltimore when the injury-depleted Ravens went for the win at the end of regulation with a two-point try and failed convert in a 31-30 final. At that point, the Packers had already seen Detroit's shocking upset of Arizona, and later that evening they surely enjoyed the Saints' blanking of the Buccaneers. All of that gave them a commanding lead in the race for the NFC's first-overall seed. Not only are the Packers the first team in the NFL to clinch it's division, but they also are guaranteed of the top NFC seed if they win out. That's hardly a long shot with a remaining schedule of home games against the Browns and Vikings and a Week 18 trip to the two-win Lions. Given their 8-2 record against NFC opponents, the Packers could likely even lose one of their last three games and still remain in the top spot as long as Dallas doesn't win out.

2. Dallas (10-4), NFC East Leader

Dallas also benefitted from the surprise results for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, jumping from fourth in the conference standings to second after easily handling the Giants, 21-6. The Cowboys currently hold the tiebreaker edge over the Buccaneers and Cardinals, though that is a bit tenuous in both cases. Tampa Bay would beat Dallas in a head-to-head tiebreaker if it came down to that thanks to their Week One win over the Cowboys. Since this currently a three-way tie and the Buccaneers and Cardinals won't play each other, head-to-head record gets skipped and Dallas owns the next tiebreaker with an 8-1 record against conference teams. The Cowboys' edge over the Cardinals is also subject to development given that Arizona and Dallas are due to meet in Week 17. Still, Dallas has put itself in position to almost certainly win the NFC East and now has a good chance at securing the second seed.

3. Tampa Bay (10-4), NFC South Leader

Again, the Buccaneers have a head-to-head hammer in future tiebreakers with the Cowboys but don't get to use it in this case because Arizona has crashed the party. That could be different by season's end. In any case, the Buccaneers lost some footing in the conference race with their defeat on Sunday night, and now have little margin for error in trying to get one of the top two spots. The fact that the Cowboys and Cardinals play each other in Week 16 is helpful, meaning that the Bucs don't have to worry about a three-way tie for the second spot if they can win their final three games. At the moment, they get the third seed over Arizona thanks to a better strength of victory number. It reaches that tiebreaker because there is no head-to-head with Arizona, both teams are currently 6-4 in conference play and there are not enough common opponents (minimum of four) between the two teams to bring that into play.

4. Arizona (10-4), NFC West Leader

Arizona's unexpected loss in Detroit opened the door for the Rams to barge back into the NFC West race, which they did, but for the moment the Cardinals still hold the top spot in the division. Both teams are 10-4 and they split their season series, but the next tiebreaker between two teams in the same division is how they did within that division. Right now, Arizona's only loss against other NFC West teams was the Rams' win in Glendale in Week 15, so their 4-1 mark remains better than the Rams' 3-2 division record. The Cardinals still have a Week 18 game remaining at home against the last-place Seahawks, while the Rams will finish their regular season against the 8-6 49ers.

5. L.A. Rams (10-4), Wild Card #1

See above. The Rams can't win the NFC West without some help, but it's worth noting that Arizona has lost three of its last five after an 8-1 start. Los Angeles had its own slump with three straight losses in November but has now won three in a row, including the last two against division foes. In terms of overall conference standings, the Buccaneers would probably prefer that Arizona remain on top, given that the Rams beat the Bucs in Week Three. L.A.'s 7-3 record against NFC opponents is also better than the Bucs' 6-4 mark, which could make a difference in a standings tie featuring more than two teams.

6. San Francisco (8-6), Wild Card #2

The 49ers continued to morph into "the team that no division winner wants to face in the Wild Card round" in Week 15, easily beating Atlanta, 31-13, to log their fifth win in their last six outings. The 49ers also continued to stay ahead of the confusing mess of teams trying to nail down the final Wild Card spot, though they do have a somewhat tough final stretch. The 49ers have to play road games against Tennessee and the Rams, both obviously still very much in the playoff race, sandwiched around a home contest with Houston. The 49ers also don't have particularly impressive marks in potential tiebreakers such as conference record and strength of victory.

7. Minnesota (7-7), Wild Card #3

Another week, another new team in the last Wild Card spot. This time it's the Vikings, who didn't exactly storm into the spot with a sloppy Monday night win over the Bears. It was enough, however, to take over that spot from Washington, which lost to Philadelphia in their rescheduled Tuesday night contest. Minnesota ended up in a three-way tie with New Orleans and Philadelphia, all at 7-7. The conference-record tiebreaker eliminates the Saints but leaves the Vikings and Eagles tied at 5-4 each. Minnesota then tops Philadelphia with a better strength-of-victory figure.

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On the outside…

8-9. Philadelphia (7-7), New Orleans (7-7)

After Minnesota gets the seventh seed, the tiebreaker between these two teams is easy: Philadelphia beat the Saints in Week 11. Still, both of these teams are still very much alive in the conference playoff chase. The Bucs beat Philadelphia but lost twice to New Orleans, so it's probably clear which team they would like to see eliminated first.

10-11. Washington (6-8), Atlanta (6-8)

Washington's loss puts the Football Team in a bad spot after a four-game winning streak had brought it back into contention. Washington has to play at Dallas next but does get a head-to-head rematch with Philadelphia in Week 17. The Football Team was depleted by COVID in Week 15 and had to start recent signee Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, so the rematch could be more competitive. Atlanta's 3-7 conference record and .333 strength of victory total makes it a very long shot to lock up a final playoff spot.

What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:

The Buccaneers simply need to take care of their own business, and can clinch that NFC South title as soon as this Sunday in Charlotte. The more difficult pursuit is the one or two seed in the conference. The first seed is obviously much more beneficial, as it carries with it the only first-round bye, but even taking the second spot guarantees that team a second playoff home game if it wins the first. After dropping the Sunday night game to the Saints, the Buccaneers need a lot of help to get that top speed – likely two losses by the Packers and their own three-game winning streak – but the second seed is clearly up for grabs between Tampa Bay, Dallas and whichever team wins the NFC West.

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