Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Playoff Push 2021: Bucs Clinch Division, Battling for Seeding

Despite winning in Week 16 and wrapping up the NFC South title, the Buccaneers actually slid a spot to fourth in the overall conference standings, though there is quite a bit of jockeying for position still ahead

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their Week 16 game at Carolina in convincing fashion, clinched the 2021 NFC South title and…somehow moved down the overall conference standings.

It is still good news overall. The Buccaneers' first goal was to capture that South flag in order to make sure they would at least start the 2021 playoffs at home. That is now set in stone. What remains is the juggling of seeds between the four NFC division champions, which includes a three-way tie between Tampa Bay, Dallas and the Los Angeles Rams, all at 11-4. Green Bay currently owns the top seed with an NFL-best 12-3 record.

The big difference from a week ago is that those Rams are now in control of the NFC West, having taken over first place from the Cardinals after Arizona's third straight loss. That reset the tiebreaker scenarios because the Rams have both a head-to-head victory over the Buccaneers and a better record against conference opponents. That's why Tampa Bay dropped from the third to the four seed despite winning in Week 16 – they're tiebreaker situation was much better against the Cardinals then the Rams.

Of course, two weeks offers a lot of time and opportunity for that to change. The Buccaneers do own a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys, which would come in handy if it is just those two teams in an end-of-season tie. And, of course, the Buccaneers could take the second seed outright if they win their final two games and the Rams lose once. To move all the way into the number-one NFC seed and get a first-round bye, the Buccaneers will need the Packers to lose each of their last two games.

Here's how the NFC playoff hunt stands after 16 weeks:

1. Green Bay (12-3), NFC North Champion

Cleveland gave the Buccaneers some hope by taking their game at Lambeau Field down to the wire on Sunday, but Baker Mayfield's fourth interception with 50 seconds left closed the book on a possible upset. That was extremely good news for Packers fans, with the Cowboys, Rams and Buccaneers all winning as well and still breathing down their necks. Obviously, the Packers will hold on to the top spot in the conference if they take care of business against Minnesota at home this coming weekend and Detroit on the road in Week 18. Green Bay's biggest problem is the Cowboys, who have a 9-1 record in conference play, which would be the relevant tiebreaker if those two teams were knotted at the end.

2. Dallas (11-4), NFC East Champion

Dallas has rather emphatically shaken off a midseason slump by winning four straight, and while Dak Prescott and the Cowboys' potentially explosive offense was a bit quiet in the first three of those wins they went ballistic in Sunday's 56-14 win over Washington. That win clinched the NFC East crown for the Cowboys, which was never in much doubt. Dallas does have two extremely intriguing games left, against an Arizona team that is scuffling but still fighting for an NFC West title and an Eagles squad that has won three in a row. As noted above, the Cowboys are in the best position to take advantage of any Green Bay stumble.

3. L.A. Rams (11-4), NFC West Leader

The Rams actually made the biggest jump in the conference standings this week because they overtook the slumping Cardinals and took control of their own destiny in the NFC West. One of the Rams' four straight wins is over Arizona, which split the season series and gave the Cardinals their first loss against a division opponent. That's important, because if the Rams lose one of their final two against Baltimore or San Francisco and the Cardinals win out, Arizona would take the division on that tiebreaker. At the moment, the Rams lose the second seed to Dallas on conference record but then get the third thanks to their Week Three win over the Buccaneers.

4. Tampa Bay (11-4), NFC South Champion

The Buccaneers did all they could do in Week 16 by bashing the Panthers and wrapping up the division, but they still dropped a spot thanks to the switch at the top of the NFC West. Their final two games are against a 4-11 Jets team and a Panthers squad they just beat by 26 points. If the Bucs can win out, they have several paths to a better seed. Any stumble by the Rams would give Tampa Bay a chance to move up a spot, and then they would have that very attractive head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys. Again, while Dallas can overtake Green Bay with just one Packers loss over the next two weeks, the Buccaneers need Green Bay to lose two in a row to have a shot at the first-round bye.

5. Arizona (10-5), Wild Card #1

The Cardinals have lost three in a row, and while a Week 15 defeat at Detroit was somewhat shocking, two one-score decisions against the Rams and Colts don't necessarily paint the picture of a team in freefall. Arizona's next game is a huge one in the conference race, as they travel to Dallas this Sunday for a huge showdown against the Cowboys. Obviously, the Buccaneers want to overtake Dallas in the overall standings, but the Cardinals could be their opening playoff opponent if the standings stay the same, so that Week 17 game at AT&T Stadium is going to be of great interest to Tampa Bay.

6. San Francisco (8-7), Wild Card #2

The 49ers had won five of their last six to put themselves in excellent position in the NFC Wild Card race, and they are still in good shape even after a 20-17 loss at Tennessee. Perhaps of greater concern is a reported thumb injury suffered by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in that defeat, which could lead to rookie first-rounder Trey Lance taking over. San Francisco has the tiebreaker over Philadelphia thanks to a head-to-head win in Week Two and thus holds on to the sixth seed. The 49ers get a 4-11 Houston team next, albeit one that just dominated the Los Angeles Chargers. They then have to travel to L.A. in Week 18 to face the Rams, a team they have strangely beaten five times in a row, including a 31-10 decision in November.

7. Philadelphia (8-7), Wild Card #3

The Eagles have taken advantage of a soft spot in the schedule to win three in a row, all by double-digit margins, over Washington and the two struggling New York teams. They get Washington again on the road this weekend but have to finish against a Dallas team that might still be fighting for the number-one overall seed in Week 18. In addition to its one-game lead over the next three teams in the conference standings, the Eagles also have six wins against NFC foes, more than any of those three trailing clubs. They also have head-to-head wins over Atlanta and New Orleans.

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On the outside…

8-9-10. Minnesota (7-8), Atlanta (7-8), New Orleans (7-8)

These three teams are still very much alive. The Vikings have a narrow edge in this three-way tie with their 5-5 conference record, against 5-6 for the Saints and 4-7 for the Falcons. After that, Atlanta gets the next spot thanks to its Week Nine win over New Orleans, though those two teams are due to meet again in the regular-season finale. If it happens to come down to it, the Saints do have an excellent strength-of-victory tiebreaker number (.552, second-best in the NFC) thanks to wins over the Packers, Patriots and Buccaneers (twice).

11. Washington (6-9)

Washington has not been officially eliminated from playoff contention just yet, but it would take an extremely unlikely combination of events for it to get to the dance. At this point, after their 42-point drubbing in Dallas, the wounded Football Team, having lost three in a row while dealing with multiple injuries and COVID absences, is probably ready to move on to 2022. However, Washington does have a home game this weekend against the Eagles, who are in a heated Wild Card fight, so maybe the chance to play spoiler against a hated division foe will spur them on.

What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:

The Buccaneers play their final road game this coming Sunday in the Meadowlands against the Jets then get a quick rematch against the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. With the division title clinched, the seeding of the top four teams now becomes the main issue, though the Bucs will have to balance those concerns with how quickly they try to bring back some of their injured players. The Bucs have locked up at least one playoff home game, and if they can move up to the second seed they would guarantee a second one if they won the first. A first-round bye is, again, a serious long shot, but still remains a possibility.

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