The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last-second win over the New York Jets in Week 17 vaulted them up to the third spot in the overall NFC playoff seeding. It also kept alive the hope of yet another important advancement in Week 18.
The Buccaneers are 12-4 with one game to play, tied with the Los Angeles Rams for the second-best record in the conference but are currently relegated to the third seed by their Week Three loss in L.A. With one week to play, the Bucs control their own destiny in one regard – keeping that third spot in the standings – but need some help to move up one more spot.
The Green Bay Packers clinched the top seed in the conference in Week 17 with their win over Minnesota coupled with a loss by Dallas to Arizona. That leaves four teams fighting for the second spot, which is important in that it guarantees that team a second playoff game at home if it wins the first one. That spot could go to the Bucs, the Cowboys or whichever team wins the NFC West between the Rams and Cardinals.
In other words, there's still a lot to play for. That's probably why Tampa Bay Head Coach Bruce Arians had this to say on Monday about how his team would approach the final weekend of play:
"You play to win. You play to get that second seed, that's huge. We're not resting anybody. We're playing to win."
Sounds good! What will it take? Here's how the NFC playoff hunt stands after 17 weeks:
1. Green Bay (13-3), NFC North Champion
The Packers have ensured that the NFC playoffs have to come through Lambeau Field. Green Bay made short work of Minnesota on Sunday night and, as noted, clinched the conference's top seed thanks to the Cowboys loss. The Rams and Buccaneers could each match the Packers at 13-4 but Green Bay would win any tiebreaker with a head-to-head win over L.A. and a better conference record than the Bucs. All of which begs the question of whether or not the Packers should rest some of their key performers in Week 18 at Detroit. The Packers overcame a long list of injuries (as did many other teams, including the Buccaneers) to come out on top in the conference, and it would be unsurprising to see them prioritize roster health in Week 18. However, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Davante Adams have already made it clear they want to play against the Lions.
2. L.A. Rams (12-4), NFC West Leader
What a rise it has been for the Rams, who at one point had sunk into the Wild Card ranks with a dispiriting three-game losing streak in November. They have now won five in a row and are in control of not only the extremely competitive NFC West but also the second seed in the overall conference standings. If the Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers at home in Week 18 they will have that second spot no matter what else happens around the league. There's also a couple of scenarios in which the Rams could lose to the 49ers and still finish second in the conference, but it requires losses by the Cowboys, Bucs and Cardinals.
3. Tampa Bay (12-4), NFC South Champion
The Buccaneers victory over the Jets makes it very likely they will be the third seed in the NFC playoffs, which will give them at least one home game to start the playoffs. With Dallas losing, the Buccaneers jumped up a spot in the seeding based simply on a better win-loss record, although they also have a head-to-head tiebreaker edge over the Cowboys. That will come in handy if the Bucs lose to the Panthers in Week 18 and the Cowboys beat the Eagles. The only way Tampa Bay drops to the fourth seed in that scenario is if the Rams and Cardinals also lose. In this case, the Cowboys would get the second seed, the Rams would win the NFC West and the head-to-head tiebreaker from Week Three would put Los Angeles in the third seed ahead of the Bucs. The only way the Buccaneers move up to the second seed is if they beat the Panthers and the Rams lose to the 49ers. By the way, San Francisco has beaten Los Angeles five times in a row. Just sayin'.
4. Dallas (11-5), NFC East Champion
The Cowboys had won four straight heading into their highly-anticipated Week 17 home game against the Cardinals, and Arizona had lost three in a row to drop into the Wild Card ranks. But the Cardinals pulled off a 25-22 upset win at AT&T Stadium – a controversial no-call on a potential fumble near the end didn't hurt – and that exponentially increased the potential chaos in the conference standings. For one thing, it kept Arizona's division title hopes alive; the Cards will take the West if they beat Seattle at home and the Rams lose to the 49ers (more on that below). The Cardinals' win also making it highly unlikely the Cowboys will finish any higher than the fourth seed. The only way Dallas wins the third seed is if they win along with victories from the Bucs, 49ers and Seahawks. The Cowboys could also still get the second seed if they win and the Bucs, Rams and Cardinals all lose.
5. Arizona (11-5), Wild Card #1
Arizona had clinched a playoff spot in a weird fashion the week before, on a win by the Rams that obviously hurt the Cardinals' chances to take the NFC West crown. After watching Los Angeles improve to 12-4 in the early-afternoon slate of games with a narrow in at Baltimore, the Cards knew they had to win at Dallas to remain alive in the division race. And they did. As such, they can still move back into the top four seeds as a division champ with a win at home against Seattle coupled with a 49ers upset at Los Angeles. The Cardinals even have a shot at the second overall seed as NFC West Champs if the Buccaneers lose and the Cowboys win. That would set up a three-way 12-5 tie between the Cards, Bucs and Cowboys, and Dallas would be eliminated first because it lost to the other two. Arizona would then win the tiebreaker for the second seed over Tampa Bay thanks to a better record against NFC opponents.
6. San Francisco (9-7), Wild Card #2
The 49ers won their Week 17 game at home against Houston in Week 17 and remained in the sixth conference seed, and yet didn't clinch a playoff spot while a team below them in the standings did. San Francisco still controls its own destiny, clinching a playoff spot and the sixth-overall seed Sunday with a win at the L.A. Rams, and can even get in with a loss, but the tiebreaker scenarios get dicey for the Niners if they lose in Week 18. If San Francisco loses, they only will need Atlanta to beat the Saints in order to stay alive.
7. Philadelphia (9-7), Wild Card #3
Meanwhile, the Eagles clinched a playoff spot with their win at Washington on Sunday, though they remain behind the 49ers in the conference standings thanks to San Francisco's Week Two win in Philadelphia. The worst-case scenario for the Eagles is a three-way tie at 9-8 between them, the 49ers and the Saints. If that were to happen, the 49ers would be eliminated first based on record in conference games and then the Eagles' head-to-head win over New Orleans in Week 11 would give them the sixth seed.
On the outside…
8. New Orleans (8-8)
The Saints are the only remaining NFC contender not currently in hold of a playoff spot, but they are far from without hope. In fact, they only need two things to happen to sneak into the dance: 1) Their own win in Atlanta and, 2) a San Francisco loss at Los Angeles. This would knot the Saints and 49ers at 9-8 apiece, and New Orleans would prevail based on a better record against conference opponents. New Orleans can only win the seventh seed, while both Philadelphia and San Francisco have sixth and seventh-seed variance.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers will wrap up the regular season on Sunday against the 5-11 Panthers, a team they beat by a 32-6 margin just two weeks ago. With a win, the Bucs will be guaranteed no worse than the third seed in the conference, with a reasonable chance at the second seed. Tampa Bay will be rooting hard for San Francisco to win its sixth straight game against the Rams, but either way the Bucs' 2021 playoff run will begin at home.