After a bye week that saw them make progress in the conference playoff chase thanks to a number of losses by top contenders, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers slipped back to their previous spot in Week 10 with a loss at Washington. It could have been worse, however, as losses by the Cardinals, Rams and Saints kept the Buccaneers on top of the NFC South and within striking distance of the top of the conference list.
The Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl Champions, of course, but they're trying to win their first division title since 2007. With that, of course, would come at least one home game to start the playoffs, as the Bucs would like to avoid another long road journey like the one that led to Super Bowl LV. There is only one first-round bye available in the NFC with the new seven-team field, and the Buccaneers are currently a game and a half behind the leaders for that coveted prize.
Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 10 weeks:
1. Green Bay (8-2), NFC North Leader
Green Bay took advantage of a couple ailing quarterbacks to leap over Arizona into the NFC's top spot. A Kyler Murray-less Arizona squad absorbed a rough 34-10 decision to the visiting Carolina Panthers, just their second loss of the season but their second in the last three weeks. At the same time, the Packers were easily handling a fading Seattle squad that did get Russell Wilson back, but certainly not peak Russell Wilson. Green Bay picked Wilson off twice at Lambeau Field and held Seattle to 133 net passing yards in a 17-0 final, the first shutout of Wilson's NFL career. Arizona's other recent loss was to Green Bay, which is why the Packers are in the pole position in the conference, with that head-to-head tiebreaker currently making the difference between two 8-2 squads. Green Bay has the Vikings next before a potentially crucial home game against the Rams in Week 12.
2. Arizona (8-2), NFC West Leader
The Cardinals were without both Murray and top wideout DeAndre Hopkins and, like Seattle, couldn't get anything going on offense. Carolina held the Cardinals to 169 total yards with Colt McCoy at the helm, making it clear Arizona needs Murray back soon to stay in contention for the first-round bye. They do have their bye week coming up soon, after a game at Seattle, and will get a chance for a season sweep of the Rams in Week 14. Their lead over Dallas for the second seed in the conference has shrunk to just half a game.
3. Dallas (7-2), NFC East Leader
In contrast to Arizona, the Cowboys recently got their MVP-candidate quarterback back from injury, and after one underwhelming performance in a Week Nine loss to Denver Dak Prescott got Dallas back on the winning track with a big game against the overmatched Falcons. Prescott completed 24 of 31 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns, both to CeeDee Lamb, to lead the Cowboys to a 43-3 no-doubter at home. And as Green Bay did to Arizona, Dallas jumped over the Buccaneers in the NFC standings, in this case simply because of a better record. The Bucs had been in possession of the third seed thanks to their Week One head-to-head win over the Cowboys but now Dallas has that spot back and is just one game behind Green Bay and Arizona in the race for the first-round bye. The Cowboys and Packers don't play this season but there is a potentially enormous Dallas-Arizona game on tap in Week 17.
4. Tampa Bay (6-3), NFC South Leader
The Buccaneers' two-game losing streak – their first since last November – has increased the level of difficulty for the defending champs in the race for the first-round bye and also kept the Saints in the division race. As noted above, Dallas jumped over the Bucs in the overall standings in Week 10 but that head-to-head victory for Tampa Bay could still come into play in the end. Thanks to a narrow Tennessee win over New Orleans that came down to a failed two-point attempt, the Buccaneers maintained their one-game lead in the NFC South over the Saints. Tampa Bay will now spend the weekend watching how the rest of the conference shakes out before taking on the New York Giants on Monday Night Football in Week 11. One thing to keep an eye on: All three of the Buccaneers' losses have come against NFC opponents and the second tiebreaker after head-to-head matchups is the teams' conference record. Green Bay, which has one loss against Kansas City, currently has the best conference record at 6-1.
5. L.A. Rams (7-3), Wild Card #1
Los Angeles was dominated on Monday night by the division-rival 49ers, who seem to have the Rams' number, but it didn't affect the top of the Wild Card standings. Los Angeles, which obviously has its sights set primarily on catching the Cardinals for the NFC West crown, is still a game back in that race but has a 1.5-game cushion on the next Wild Card team. While Arizona will be getting Murray and Hopkins back soon, the Rams will not see any more of wideout Robert Woods, who tore an ACL in practice last Friday. However, they have their new toy, Odell Beckham, ready to slide into Woods' spot. The Rams also get to sort things out on their bye this week, which comes on the heels of a two-game losing streak. The Rams were also 7-3 after 10 games last season and looked like a strong bet to win the division but then faded down the stretch, losing three of their final six games. With Matthew Stafford now at the helm, that is a lot less likely to happen in 2021.
6. New Orleans (5-4), Wild Card #2
New Orleans clawed to within striking distance of the Bucs in the NFC South with their Week Eight win over Tampa Bay, which also saw starting quarterback Jameis Winston go down with a season-ending knee injury. They have since lost a pair of two-point decisions to the Falcons and Titans, to the Buccaneers' relief, and remain one game back in the division. They are also closer to the muddled middle of the conference standings, as there are six teams with either four or five wins and just 1.5 games separating sixth place from 11th. That group of six includes all three of Tampa Bay's NFC South foes. New Orleans doesn't exactly have an easy stretch coming up on its schedule, either. After a trip to Philadelphia this coming weekend the Saints will have a pair of home games against Buffalo and Dallas. New Orleans also has a Week Two loss on their ledger to Carolina, which is lurking right behind them in the standings. Those two teams meet again in Week 17.
8. Carolina (5-5), Wild Card #3
Speaking of interesting quarterback situations, the Panthers have one of their own with the return of former franchise player Cam Newton. With Sam Darnold landing on injured reserve, Newton started his second Carolina chapter with a two-touchdown cameo in a dominant win over Arizona, and he is likely to supplant P.J. Walker as the starter as soon as this weekend. Over the past three weeks, Carolina and Atlanta have swapped this spot back and forth twice and those two teams will meet for a second time in Week 14, right after Carolina's late bye week. Before that bye, the Panthers have dates with Washington and Miami, a pair of three-win teams, but the Football Team and the Dolphins have recently looked frisky with wins over Tampa Bay and Baltimore, respectively.
On the outside…
8-9-10. Minnesota (4-5), San Francisco (4-5), Atlanta (4-5)
Atlanta is the big faller here, as they were in possession of the seventh seed a week ago. However, Minnesota and San Francisco earned impressive wins in Week 10 over the Chargers and Rams, respectively while Atlanta was flattened by the Cowboys. Minnesota has a tough schedule ahead with two games against the Packers plus the 49ers, Steelers and Rams. However, it has the lead in this tied group thanks to a superior conference record, as three of their five losses have come against AFC teams. Atlanta is in the worst shape in that department with a 2-5 mark against NFC teams. San Francisco will play both Minnesota and Atlanta over the next five weeks but the Vikings and Falcons aren't scheduled to meet.
11. Philadelphia (4-6)
The Eagles have kept their playoff hopes alive with two wins in the last three weeks, including an impressive 30-13 showing at Denver on Sunday. Up next is a home game against New Orleans that may clear up which direction those two teams are headed in. The Eagles don't get their bye until Week 14. After that, they finish with four straight games against NFC East foes, though a run at the Cowboys for the division title seems unlikely.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers still have a very clear path to the playoffs but need to get back on track if they want to hold onto the division lead and not fall too far off the race for the top seed. A Monday night home game against the Giants is followed by a trip to Indianapolis and then a second game against the Falcons, whom they beat in Week Two. A season-ending run of Panthers-Jets-Panthers looked a little different before Carolina brought back Cam Newton.