The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't be able to improve their domain in the NFC playoff field in Week 11, but they won't get any worse either, and the gains they made in Week 10 were substantial.
After beating Seattle in an historic game in Germany, the Buccaneers pulled clear of the rest of the field in the NFC South and reeled the Seahawks back a bit, closer to their own spot in the conference standings. Philadelphia and Minnesota have staked out the two best positions from which to seek the NFC's lone playoff bye and it will take a serious stumbles by both of those teams to give the winners of the West or South divisions a shot at the top spot.
Still, a Tampa Bay team that two weeks ago was reeling from a third straight loss that had dropped it all the way to 3-5 suddenly has a much rosier outlook for its post-bye stretch run, not only to hold onto its own division but also to challenge for the third seed in the overall conference pecking order. Of course, given that the current Wild Card-holding teams are the Giants, Cowboys and 49ers – all of whom have looked dangerous at various parts of this season – the seeding of the second through fourth division-winners might not matter that much.
Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 10 weeks:
1. Philadelphia (8-1), NFC East Leader
The Eagles are well past being considered a surprise contender and are now clearly one of the league's best and most complete team, full stop. They did, however, finally show the first crack in their armor on Monday night, taking their first loss at the hands of the Washington Commanders. The Eagles remained in the top spot in the conference, though, because they have already beaten the Vikings, and that could prove mighty handy if those two do battle it out to the end. Philadelphia has the number-one ranked offense in the conference, its second-ranked defense and the best per-game differential in points per game (8.8). They've won both games on their scheduled decided by three or fewer points but, in a league driven by parity, haven't had to worry about close calls very often. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has a 106.5 passer rating and seven rushing touchdowns, the A.J. Brown trade looks like a masterpiece and the defense has generated a conference-best 20 takeaways. We're still just a bit past the season's midway point, so there is still time for the Eagles to run into some adversity, and maybe that began Monday night, but right now they are in the driver's seat in the NFC.
2. Minnesota (8-1), NFC North Leader
It's safe to say that not everyone is a believer in the Vikings just yet, given that all but one of their wins has come by a one-score margin and the competition in the North has cratered with the Packers struggling to find their footing. It's a little harder to remain skeptical, however, after the Vikings' enormous – and enormously entertaining – win this past weekend over the Buffalo Bills, until recently the presumed Super Bowl favorites. Of course, Minnesota needed the catch of the century by Justin Jefferson on fourth-and-18 and a stunning end zone fumble by Josh Allen to get that signature victory, but a win's a win. Minnesota's one loss is to Philly, as noted, so that's an obstacle to overcome, but the Vikings are five games up over the Packers in the loss column and completely in control of their fate in the NFC North. They also have a favorable schedule ahead, with games remaining against Detroit, Indianapolis, Green Bay and Chicago in the final five weeks.
3. Seattle (6-4), NFC West Leader
The Buccaneers pumped the brakes a little bit on Seattle's momentum in Germany, snapping the Seahawks' four-game winning streak and mostly stifling an offense that had been humming with Geno Smith's precise passing and breakout rookie running back Kenneth Walker. Still, the Seahawks are one of the NFL's best surprises in 2022 after their offseason trade of Russell Wilson to Denver seemed to signal the start of the rebuild. Seattle was also still in a division with the defending Super Bowl champion Rams, the other 2021 conference championship game participant in San Francisco and an Arizona team that made the playoffs last year. Instead, with Smith taking full advantage of his first opportunity to start in years and the Seattle defense recovering from a slow start to play much better over the last five weeks, this team should stay in the division race with the 49ers right to the end. The Seahawks do have to worry that the team just below them has a head-to-head tiebreaker, as do the 49ers, who could pull even with them in the division with a win over Arizona while Seattle is on a bye.
4. Tampa Bay (5-5), NFC South Leader
The Buccaneers are exactly where they were a season ago after 10 weeks: In first place in the NFC South and in possession of the fourth seed in the conference. However, that 2021 team was 6-3 at the time and was just 1.5 game back of the top spot in the conference. Those Bucs would win seven of their last eight to tie Green Bay for the best record in the NFL. This year, at 5-5, the Buccaneers are 3.5 games back of Philadelphia with seven to play. That's pretty close to an insurmountable deficit, but the Bucs can still battle for better seeding in the conference field and, of course, to hold onto their lead in the NFC South. Currently, Tampa Bay is up by one game on the 4-6 Falcons, whose next three games are against Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh, three teams with a combined 11-18 record. Still, not only did Tampa Bay's two pre-bye victories lead to a 5-5 record that is a bit easier to look at on paper, but a lot of peripheral numbers in the standings look good, too. The Bucs' 5-2 conference record is better than anyone in the NFC other than the Eagles and Vikings, and their 2-1 mark in the NFC South is helpful, as well. The Buccaneers also currently sport the second-best strength of victory (.458) in the conference, which is a tiebreaker that possibly come into play.
5. N.Y. Giants (7-2), Wild Card #1
The Giants probably have fewer believers than the Vikings at this point, but they just keep winning. Their only two losses are to fellow contenders Dallas and Seattle. They have perhaps benefited from a somewhat soft schedule – their .396 strength-of-victory figure is by far the worst of the top seven contenders right now – but they are clearly a much better coached team under first-year leader Brian Daboll. New York is 12th in offense and 10th in defense among the 16 NFC teams and have only outscored their opponents by six total points through nine games. The Giants have already lost their one game so far against Dallas and still have to play the Eagles twice. On the one hand, that's a sign that their stretch-run schedule is going to get more difficult, but it can also be viewed as an opportunity for the Giants to take matters into their own hands in the division race. Despite Philly's impeccable start, New York is still just two games out.
6. Dallas (6-3), Wild Card #2
It's been a strange season for Dallas, which looked at if it might be staring at a lost season after a listless home loss to Tampa Bay in the opener and the loss of star quarterback Dak Prescott to a thumb injury in the same game. But Dallas stayed afloat during the five games that Cooper Rush started, losing only to Philadelphia in that span, thanks in large part to a swarming defense led by potential Defensive Player of the Year Micah Parsons. The Cowboys wild 31-28 overtime loss to Green Bay – which blemished what had previously been an all-time franchise win-loss record of 195-0 when it took a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter – hurt their chances to catch the Packers, but the two teams play again in Week 16.
7. San Francisco (5-4), Wild Card #3
The 49ers feel like that team nobody wants to face in the playoffs, whether they make it as a division winner or a Wild Card team. San Francisco has the best defense in the NFC, in terms of yards allowed, and are third in points allowed. And now the offense has trade-acquisition Christian McCaffrey for play-designing whiz Kyle Shanahan to scheme around. They tried to build the offense around dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance, their 2021 first-round pick, but Lance's season-ending injury in Week Two put the offense back in Jimmy Garoppolo's hands. The 49ers obviously tried to move on from Garoppolo in the offseason, but they are 37-15 in his regular-season starts, and 4-2 with him in the playoffs. Still, the path San Francisco has taken to 5-4 makes it hard to determine just how good they are. The 49ers have lost to the Bears, Broncos and Falcons, but they've also beaten the Seahawks and the Chargers twice.
On the outside…
8. Washington (5-5)
The Commanders looked like the one team that it wasn't in contention in the surprisingly powerful NFC East when they started 1-4, but they've quietly won four of their last four to pull within a half-game of the final Wild Card spot. A three-game winning streak against the Bears, Packers and Colts didn't exactly confer upon them prime contender status, but they did nearly pull off a huge upset of the Vikings in Week Nine before going on their bye, and then came out of their break to ruin the Eagles' perfect season. Washington's 3-4 record in conference play isn't going to do them any favors unless they can pull away a bit from this scrum…
9-10-11. Green Bay (4-6), Atlanta (4-6), Arizona (4-6)
Atlanta's best bet is likely to be catching the Buccaneers in the NFC South, as that's more of a head-to-head battle than a multi-team rumble in the muck. The Packers could be the ones to watch here after their much, much, much-needed win over Dallas in Week 10. Green Bay had lost five straight and had averaged just 16 points per game in that span, but they topped 400 yards in their 31-28 win over the Cowboys and they still have the two-time reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers may have found his number-one target in that game, hooking up for three touchdowns with rookie Christian Watson, and star running back Aaron Jones had his best outing of the season. The Cardinals beat the depressed Rams last weekend but have already lost twice to Seattle so the division title is a stretch. They do get a shot at some divisional health in Week 11 with a home game against the 49ers.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers will enjoy their bye week after an exhausting trip to Munich and back, but they will hope to hold onto the momentum they've built over the past two weekends. On Sunday, they'll have a chance to relax and watch the Falcons host the Bears, who have become a much more frightening opponent since Justin Fields started running wild. When the Bucs return from their week off they will head to Cleveland and try to finally get a win against an AFC team after losses to the Chiefs, Steelers and Ravens.