In one respect, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 push to the playoffs is now complete: They have clinched their first postseason berth since 2007. However, as Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Saturday after the 47-7 pounding of Detroit that secured that playoff spot, "It's just the beginning."
In fact, that "t-shirt and hat game" at Ford Field was only the beginning of the weekend's good news for the Buccaneers. When Seattle won its NFC West showdown with the Los Angeles Rams, thereby clinching that division, it also pushed the Rams to 9-6, allowing the 10-5 Buccaneers to jump from the sixth conference spot into the five seed. Whichever NFC team ends up in that fifth spot will open the playoffs with a road game against an NFC East champion that is guaranteed to have a sub-.500 record.
As Tom Brady noted after Saturday's game, the Buccaneers came out of their Week 13 bye with a tenuous 7-5 record but a chance to control their own playoff outcome by running the table over the last four weeks. Now 10-5 and in much better shape, the Bucs can finish that final-quarter sweep and stay in the five seed with one more win next Sunday against Atlanta.
The Buccaneers were the only team in the NFC to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16, joining the Packers, Saints and Seahawks, who were already in. Those three teams are all still in contention for the first-overall spot and the only bye in the opening week. There are also three teams left to contend for the final two conference spots. Oh, and even though nobody in the NFC East has more than six wins, there are still three teams in that division that can make the playoffs. Here's how the conference standings look as the Bucs get ready for that final three-game stretch:
1. Green Bay Packers (12-3, 9-2 in NFC)
Green Bay dominated a very good Tennessee team in its natural habitat of snowy Lambeau Field on Sunday night, winning 40-14 to stay ahead of the Saints and Seahawks in the overall standings. In some respects, the game didn't mean that much to the Packers; even had they lost, they would have held onto the top spot with a Week 17 win at Chicago even if they ended up tied with the Saints and/or the Seahawks. We can ignore those scenarios now, however, because the Packers beat the Titans. The simplest result in Week 17 is a Green Bay win over the Bears to secure the bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Where it gets tricky is if the Packers lose to the Bears and end up in a 12-4 tie with either the Saints, the Seahawks or both. Will get to those scenarios in the New Orleans and Seattle sections below.
2. New Orleans Saints (11-4, 9-2 in NFC)
Actually, as cathartic as it was for the Buccaneers to clinch a playoff spot, Week 16 didn't go exactly right for Tampa Bay. Perhaps it was greedy to hope for a Saints loss to the Vikings on Christmas Day, but that gift from Santa would have kept the Bucs hopes for winning the NFC South – once seemingly so miniscule – alive into the final weekend. Alas, Alvin Kamara ran for six (!) touchdowns and the Saints won and secured their fourth straight division crown, meaning the highest the Bucs could go in the playoff seedings was the fifth spot. Now the Saints can try to get back into the top spot in the conference but they have to win at Carolina next Sunday and get help from both the Packers and the Seahawks…though a different kind of help from each team. Obviously, the Saints need the Packers to lose so that they can tie them in the overall standings at 12-4 each. However, that in itself wouldn't get the job done because the Packers would win the first tiebreaker thanks to that aforementioned head-to-head win in New Orleans early in the season. What Saints need is a three-way tie, with the Seahawks also winning at San Francisco on Sunday. Since Seattle didn't play Green Bay or New Orleans you have to skip that first head-to-head tiebreaker and go to the next one, which in this case is record in conference games. In this scenario, the Saints would be 10-2 and both the Packers and Seahawks would be 9-3. Voilà!
3. Seattle Seahawks (11-4, 8-3 in NFC)
The Seahawks rushed out of the gates in 2020 with a 6-1 start, their only loss in that span an overtime thriller against Kyler Murray's Cardinals. Seattle started to show some cracks in the middle of the season, however, and began kicking the NFC West lead back and forth with the Rams. However, a much improved defense in the season's second half has allowed Seattle to restore its dominance in the division, which became complete on Sunday when they beat the Rams, 20-9, to win the West. At the moment the Seahawks remain in the third spot because their conference record is one game worse than that of the Saints, but they can still climb as high as first overall. For that to happen, the Seahawks need Green Bay to lose at Chicago and the Saints to lose at Carolina in Week 17, and of course they have to take care of their own business at San Francisco. Those outcomes would result in the Packers and Hawks being tied at 12-4, one game ahead of the Saints. Again, there is no head-to-head meeting between these two teams and they would have identical 9-3 conference records. That kicks it to record in common games, of which they would have five against four opponents: Atlanta, Minnesota, Philadelphia and San Francisco. If the Seahawks do beat the 49ers on Sunday, they will be 5-0 in those games, while Green Bay is 4-1. The difference: Green Bay's Week Eight home loss to Minnesota.
4. Washington Football Team (6-9, 4-7 in NFC)
Washington could have clinched the NFC East with a home win over Carolina on Sunday but the four teams in the division seem intent on avoiding a claim on the title until as late as possible. The Football Team did remain atop the division even after Dallas won to match its 6-9 record. That's because two of Washington's six wins this season came at the expense of the Cowboys. That means Washington still is the only team controlling its own fate in the East; a win at Philadelphia in Week 17 gives it the division title. However, if Washington loses it has no path to the playoffs because the Cowboys and Giants play each other on Sunday. More on that below. Whichever team wins this division is locked into the four seed and will open the playoffs at home.
5. Tampa Bay (10-5, 7-4 in NFC)
The Buccaneers jumped over the Rams into the fifth spot when Los Angeles lost to Seattle on Sunday. If they stay there through the final week, they will open the playoffs on the road against the NFC East champ. That would be Washington if the Football Team beats Philadelphia on Sunday; if Washington loses, the Bucs destination will be to the home of the winner in the Cowboys-Giants game. Tampa Bay needs to win in Week 17 to make sure they stay in their current spot because the Rams have the head-to-head tiebreaker with their Week 11 victory in Tampa. The Buccaneers would also hold onto the five seed if they lose and the Rams lose to the Cardinals. Whichever team takes the final Wild Card spot can only get to nine wins, so the Buccaneers do not have to worry about slipping any farther than sixth. The six seed will play the three seed in the first round, but it's still too early to know who that would be. If the Packers, Saints and Seahawks all take care of business in Week 17, the six seed will be headed to Seattle.
6. Los Angeles Rams (9-6, 8-3 in NFC)
The Rams would have been the fifth NFC team to clinch a playoff spot if they had beaten the Seahawks but their offense sputtered in a 20-9 loss and quarterback Jared Goff now has a broken thumb on his throwing hand. At 9-4 after wins over Seattle, Tampa Bay, Arizona and New England, the Rams looked like strong Super Bowl contenders but now they head into the final week still needing a win to ensure they will be in the postseason at all. For the Rams to drop all the way out they have to lose in Week 17 while the Bears and Cardinals both win. But here's the kicker: the Rams play the Cardinals, so we're really only talking about two outcomes here. The Bears still have to beat the Packers, which is obviously a tall order, though the game is in Chicago. If that happens and the Cardinals beat the Rams all three teams will be 9-7. In such a three-way scenario, the first thing you do is eliminate all but one team from every division. So before Chicago even comes into the picture, you pit Arizona and Los Angeles against each other. In this scenario, they have a head-to-head split so you go to record within the division. If Arizona does beat L.A. on Sunday, they will improve to 3-3 in the division while the Rams fall to 2-4. That gives the final two spots to the Bears and Cardinals. Still, the Rams have two remaining paths to the playoffs: an L.A. win over Arizona OR a Chicago loss to Green Bay.
7. Chicago (8-7, 6-5 in NFC)
It was a very good weekend for the Bears, who had little trouble dispatching of the Jaguars, 41-17, and got a couple holiday gifts with losses by the Rams and, especially, the Cardinals. The Bears have won three in a row and are now one more win away from clinching at least the seven seed, and possibly the six. Chicago currently wins its tiebreaker over Arizona on record in common games because they didn't play head-to-head and they both are 6-5 in conference games. The Bears went 3-2 in games against the Lions, Giants, Panthers and Rams. The Cardinals are currently 1-3 against those teams and would still only be 2-3 with a win over Los Angeles in Week 17. That same tiebreaker would also get the Bears the six seed over the Cardinals if they both win on Sunday. For the same reason, the Bears get a playoff spot if they lose to the Packers but the Cardinals also lose to the Rams.
On the outside…
8. Arizona (8-7, 6-5 in NFC)
The Cardinals chances to continue playing past Week 17 appeared to take a big hit with their loss to the 49ers on Saturday but they did not lose control of their own fate. That's because, as we noted above, the Cardinals and Rams square off on Sunday and the winner is guaranteed a spot in the dance. If Arizona wins it will have the same 9-7 record as the Rams and will win with a better record within the division. At that point, it comes down to the Bears; if they beat Green Bay, they're in and if they lose the Rams are in and the Bears are out.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers return home for their second game in three weeks against the Falcons. Tampa Bay won in Atlanta in Week 15 but needed a wild second-half comeback to prevail, 31-27. With a win, the Buccaneers will secure the five seed and await the final game of the season to see if they will be headed to Washington or the winner of the earlier Dallas/New York game. If the Buccaneers can't pull off the sweep of the Falcons they will be the five seed if the Rams lose and the six seed if the Rams win. On Monday, Head Coach Bruce Arians says the Buccaneers will be playing to win and that they badly want to finish 11-5, no matter what that means for their first-round destination.