The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't play in Week 13, and their spot in the NFC playoff race didn't change, either. But the landscape definitely shifted around them, and when they return to action in Week 14 it will be against a Minnesota Vikings team that has emphatically reinserted itself into the hunt.
While the Buccaneers were enjoying their very late bye week, the New Orleans Saints won their ninth straight and clinched a playoff berth while the Packers stayed hot on their heels for the first-overall seed and a first-round bye. The NFC West lead changed hands for the fourth week in a row and the slumping Arizona Cardinals fell out of a playoff spot. The New York Giants put some legitimacy behind their NFC East lead by beating the Seattle Seahawks, who are now just a game ahead of the Bucs in the Wild Card race.
Minnesota needed overtime to get its fifth win in the last six weeks but they'll come to Tampa on Sunday with a full head of steam. Until then, here's how the NFC standings currently shake out:
1. New Orleans (10-2)
New Orleans held off a late push from the Atlanta Falcons to win, 21-16, for their second defeat of their division rivals in the last three weeks. The Saints' ninth straight win made them the first team in the NFC to punch their ticket to the 2020 playoffs. New Orleans has not yet clinched the NFC South, but it's fourth straight division title is all but in the bag. The Falcons and Panthers have been eliminated from that race and the Buccaneers would need to win all of their four remaining games while seeing the Saints lose all of their four remaining games to win the division. Even so, the Saints have every reason to remain motivated, as their hold on the one opening-week bye is tenuous at best. While they lead the Packers by a game, Green Bay beat them in Week Three (the Saints' last loss) and thus holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
2. Green Bay (9-3)
The Packers didn't have much trouble dispatching the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday for their fourth win in the last five weeks. Not only did that allow them to keep pace with the Saints but it also helped them jump up one spot in the overall NFC standings when Seattle lost to the Giants in a minor upset. Last week, the Seahawks had the two seed over Green Bay thanks to a slight edge in the strength-of-victory tiebreaker but now the Seahawks are out of first in the NFC West and the Packers are alone at 9-3. Moreover, three of the Packers' last four games are against teams with a losing record, beginning with the Detroit Lions this week.
3. Los Angeles Rams (8-4)
In the last four weeks, first place in the NFC West has belonged to the Cardinals, then the Rams, then the Seahawks and now the Rams again. Every time one of these three teams beats one of the other, there's a seismic shift in the division standings. In this case, it was the Rams' 38-28 win in Arizona, coupled with the aforementioned Seattle loss, that pushed Los Angeles back into the division lead and thus up two spots in the NFC pecking order. The carousel may not be stopping anytime soon, either, as the Rams will finish the regular season with games at Seattle and against Arizona. Since the Rams have a head-to-head win over the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay would prefer that they remain in the West lead and out of any potential Wild Card tiebreakers.
4. N.Y. Giants (5-7)
With its first win this season against an NFC team outside of its own division, the Giants maintained their hold on first place in the East and started to look more like an actual playoff contender. New York has already swept the Washington Football Team, which became much more important when Washington toppled the previously-undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night and improved to 5-7. Still, nothing has changed about this scenario: Whichever team wins the NFC East will almost surely be in the fourth seed, as the other three conference division winners are almost certain to have at least 10 wins.
5. Seattle (8-4)
Seattle isn't slumping as badly as the Cardinals but it has lost four of its last seven, including one each to the Cardinals (in Week Eight) and Rams (in Week 10). Their surprising 17-12 loss to the Giants on Sunday was their first defeat at home in 2020 and they get to stay at home this week to play the 0-12 New York Jets. That is followed by a flight across the country to play the Washington Football team before two division games against the Rams and 49ers. Seattle is out of the division lead for the moment because of its head-to-head loss to Los Angeles but obviously has an opportunity to even that one out in Week 16.
6. Tampa Bay (7-5)
The Buccaneers went into the bye week knowing they had no chance to move up in the overall conference standings. If the Rams had lost to the Cardinals that would have dropped them to 7-5 but they would have remained ahead of the Bucs due to that Week 12 win in Tampa. The Bucs could have dropped one spot to seventh if Arizona had won because the Cardinals would have had the same 7-5 mark plus a slightly better record in conference games. But the Rams beat the Cardinals and the Bucs stayed put. The biggest hurdle for the Bucs to clear in trying to move up to the fifth speed, and a first-round matchup with the NFC East winner, is their conference record, which current sits at 4-4. The Seahawks' 6-3 conference record is significantly better but the Buccaneers finish their season with four straight NFC opponents so they have a chance to close that gap.
7. Minnesota (6-6)
The Rams helped the Bucs by beating Arizona. The Giants helped by beating Seattle. The Lions even helped with a last-minute win over the Bears, who are now clinging to the fringes of the playoff race. Former Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon almost helped the Buccaneers, too, but his last pass against Minnesota was intercepted and the Vikings barely evaded an upset by the 1-11 Jacksonville Jaguars. In just his second start for Jacksonville, Glennon tied the game with a minute left on a successful two-point conversion pass to Collin Johnson. The Jaguars even had a chance to win it in overtime after Minnesota's first drive ended in a punt, but his downfield shot to D.J. Chark was intercepted and the Vikings turned that into the game-winning field goal. That win, on the heels of an equally hairy 28-27 victory over Carolina the previous weekend, got Minnesota back to .500 on the season and put them right on the Buccaneers' heels in the overall race. That's particularly significant given that the Vikings are coming to Raymond James Stadium this weekend.
On the outside…
8. Arizona (6-6)
The Cardinals lost their grip on a playoff spot with their third straight loss, and if not for one incredible Hail Mary catch by DeAndre Hopkins would have a five-game losing streak on their hands. Arizona is also now two games out of the NFC West lead and with both the Rams and Seahawks sitting at 8-4 are long shots to climb back to the top. Arizona has the same record as Minnesota and the same conference record (4-4), which is the first tiebreaker between the two since they haven't played head to head. The tiebreaker that makes a difference here is record against common opponents, and it's a very slim lead for the Vikings. Minnesota has a 2-2 record against Carolina, Dallas, Detroit and Seattle, while the Cardinals are 2-3 against those same clubs. The Vikings still have to play Detroit one more time and would make sure they maintained that tiebreaker over Arizona with a win.
9-12. Chicago Bears (5-7), Detroit Lions (5-7), San Francisco 49ers (5-7), Washington Football Team (5-7)
These teams got here in different ways but all four of them are going to have a tough time getting from here to the playoffs. Actually Washington, which has the same record as the Giants but has lost to New York twice, probably has the best shot with the NFC East title still very much in play. Chicago has lost six in a row, most recently this past Sunday in last-minute, disheartening fashion to the Lions. Detroit had been doing enough losing of its own to get Head Coach Matt Patricia fired but does have recent wins over Washington and Chicago and might be getting the same sort of "interim coach bounce" that Atlanta has been enjoying. San Francisco looked like it might be re-emerging as a conference contender after beating the Rams in Week 12 but lost some momentum with Monday's loss to Buffalo. Chicago and Detroit split their season series but the Bears have a half-game edge in conference record. In a four-way Wild Card tie, you eliminate all but one team from each division first, so Chicago then goes up against San Francisco and Washington, which is also decided in the Bears' favor by conference record. Detroit then tops San Francisco and Washington in that same tiebreaker. The 49ers and the Football Team will play each other next week, so that takes care of any tiebreaker issues between those two. Really, the particular order of these four teams isn't terribly important right now, anyway, as Washington is in its own division battle and any one of the other three would probably have to run its table to make it to the postseason.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
The Buccaneers, hopefully well-rested and mentally rejuvenated from their bye, will now begin their mad four-game dash to the regular-season finish line. The first of those four games is probably the most important, as it is against a Vikings team that could leapfrog them in the standings with a win at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. The Bucs also have two games left against division rival Atlanta, and even though the Falcons are 4-8 they've won their last three games that were not against New Orleans, including a shocking 43-6 drubbing of the Raiders in Week 12. The Buccaneers also have a road game at Detroit in Week 16.