The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' spot in the overall NFC standings hasn't changed in four weeks and it didn't move after the team's incredible comeback win in Atlanta. So the view may be the same for the Buccaneers entering Week 16 but the scenery suddenly looks a whole better.
Most directly, the Buccaneers win over the Falcons puts them on the brink of their first playoff berth since 2007. They could clinch it this Saturday with a win in Detroit but really only need one win in the last two weeks to ensure they'll be invited to the dance. If the Bucs aren't in by Saturday, a loss by the Chicago Bears on Sunday would do the trick, too.
But there's more at stake and suddenly the Buccaneers have a little more control over their fate. Or a lot more, really.
The Buccaneers took care of their own business in Atlanta but the rest of the NFC didn't offer up much help. The Packers, Bears, Seahawks and Cardinals all won in denial of the Bucs' wishes, and the Bears and Vikings didn't even have the decency to end in a tie and allow Tampa Bay to clinch in Week 15. However, there were two results near the end of the afternoon on Sunday that did go in the Bucs' favor, one that was billed as a potential Super Bowl preview and one that seemed more relevant to next year's draft than the playoffs.
First, the Chiefs won their showdown with the Saints in New Orleans, which kept the NFC South title in play. Two weeks ago, when the Buccaneers' only hope to win the division was to win all four of their remaining games while the Saints lost all four of theirs, that seemed too farfetched to spend much time thinking about it. Since, though, Tampa Bay has won two and the Saints have lost two and dream scenario seems a bit more realistic. It's now worth keeping in mind as we choose which teams to root for over the next two weeks.
Second, the New York Jets pulled off the upset of the season, beat the Rams, 23-20, in Los Angeles for their very first victory of the year. It's debatable whether the majority of the Jets' fans were actually happy about this outcome, given that it might cost them Trevor Lawrence next spring. Bucs fans, on the other hand, should be thrilled. The Rams' loss coupled with this week's showdown between L.A. and Seattle means that, somehow, the Buccaneers can move up to the fifth seed in the NFC simply by winning their last two games. We'll explain it in greater detail in the Rams and Seahawks section below.
So let's get to it. Here's how the conference standings look as the Bucs get ready for that final two-game stretch:
1. Green Bay Packers (11-3, 9-2 in NFC)
It was really a superb weekend for the Packers, and since they played on Saturday they got to sit and watch it all unfold on Sunday from the comfort of their own couches. Green Bay's 24-16 win over the Carolina Panthers – admittedly not one of their prettiest games of the year, by Aaron Rodgers' own postgame estimation – was enough to keep them in the top spot in the conference no matter what else happened. Then Kansas City beat the Saints and that number-one seed with its first-round bye was practically secured for the Packers. Thanks to their head-to-head tiebreaker over New Orleans and one-game lead in the standings, they only have to win one more and have the Seahawks lose one to clinch that top seed. In fact, if the Packers beat the Bears in Week 17 they don't even need another Seattle loss thanks to what would be a superior record in conference games. As if that wasn't enough, the Packers found out on Monday that they had seven players voted into the Pro Bowl.
2. New Orleans Saints (10-4, 8-2 in NFC)
The Saints have dropped two in a row after their nine-game winning streak put them in control of the division, and while there's obviously no shame in losing by three points to Patrick Mahomes and company there is some concern about how effective Drew Brees will be in the next two weeks. New Orleans has already clinched a playoff spot and will take their fourth straight division title if they either beat Minnesota at home this week or close out the regular season with a win at Carolina. The Saints also remained in the second spot in the standings despite Seattle matching their 10-4 record because the Chiefs were a non-conference opponent. New Orleans' 8-2 record in conference play is still better than Seattle's 7-3. The Saints' most likely finish is still as either the second or third seed but since they don't have the division secured yet they could still technically land in any of the spots from one to seven. A potential tiebreaker with Arizona at 10-6 each would likely come down to strength of victory, and the Cardinals' number in that category is currently better than the Saints' number.
3. Seattle Seahawks (10-4, 7-3 in NFC)
The Seahawks and Rams swapped the division lead one more time, as Seattle beat Washington while L.A. was falling to the Jets. Seattle also became the third team in the conference to clinch a playoff spot. The Rams did have the tiebreaker over Seattle thanks to their Week 10 head-to-head win, but now the Seahawks are a game up in the standings. That said, this one is probably going to come down to their rematch this weekend, with the winner of that game likely to own the division title in the end. How does that division race affect the Buccaneers? Let's start with the scenario that has the Seahawks beating the Rams, which would clinch the division for Seattle and put the Rams in the Wild Card hunt. In that case, Los Angeles would fall to 9-6 with a best possible total of 10 wins. That means the Buccaneers would jump them in the standings by winning out and finishing at 11-5. What if the Rams win this coming Sunday? See L.A.'s section below. As for the Seahawks, they can still get the top spot if they win out, get one loss from the Saints and receive a Week 17 gift from the Bears in the form of a victory over Green Bay.
4. Washington Football Team (6-8, 4-6 in NFC)
Washington lost to Seattle in Week 15 but remained in the driver's seat in the NFL's weakest division because the Giants also lost. In fact, it is now Dallas, with a 5-9 record that is equal to the Giants, that is now in second place in the NFC East. However, because Washington swept two from the Cowboys this year, Dallas needs to win out and get two losses from the Football Team to win the division. That means the Giants are still Washington's greater concern, as New York in turn swept them this season. Even the Eagles, at 4-9-1, are still alive in the division race but they would need a whole lot of help to win it. As has been clear for some time, whichever team wins the NFC East is locked into the fourth seed, which makes winning the top Wild Card spot a goal worth pursuing.
5. Los Angeles Rams (9-5, 6-3 in NFC)
Rams Head Coach Sean McVay said the loss to the previously-winless Jets made him sick to his stomach but he could be feeling a lot better by the end of this week. The Rams still "control their own destiny," as the actually-nonsensical saying goes, because of this weekend's rematch with the Seahawks. A win for L.A. would even up the standings again and put them back in first thanks to what would be a head-to-head sweep. At that point, they would win the division in Week 17 with either a win over Arizona or a Seattle loss to San Francisco. Given how these four teams have beaten up on each other this season – even the 49ers have a two-game sweep of the Rams – there are no outcomes in the final two weeks for this division that will surprise. But, again, what does it mean to the Buccaneers. If we follow this scenario of the Rams winning in Week 16, they will either win the division with another victory in Week 17 or lose and fall to 10-6. Meanwhile, a loss by the Seahawks in Week 16 gives them a cap of 11 possible wins. If the Buccaneers win out to get to 11-5 and end up in a tie with the Seahawks, the Bucs would come out on top due to a third-level tiebreaker. There was no head-to-head game between these two teams and both would have an 8-4 record in conference games. That takes us to record against common opponents, of which there must be at least four to bring into play. And there are. Both the Bucs and Seahawks played Atlanta, Minnesota, the L.A. Rams and the New York Giants. Tampa Bay beat the Vikings and Giants and would have two wins over the Rams in this scenario, with a loss to the Rams for an overall 4-1 mark. The Seahawks would have two losses to the Rams to go with a loss to the Giants and wins over Atlanta and Minnesota. That's a 2-3 record against those common opponents.
6. Tampa Bay (9-5, 6-4 in NFC)
Once again, the Buccaneers stayed ahead of the Cardinals by winning, though it took quite a comeback to make it happen this time. Had Tampa Bay lost they would have slipped behind the Cardinals into the seventh spot and would have the Bears breathing down their necks. But, hey, none of that happened so let's focus on what the victory meant for Tampa Bay's chances. As we already noted above, the overall scenario didn't change for the Bucs – they need to get to 10 wins to be absolutely secure in their playoff spot. They just happened to get to within one win of that goal on Sunday. Arizona is the only team behind them that can also get to 10 wins, which is why 10 is the golden number. If Chicago loses in Week 16, then there will be no other teams behind Arizona that can even get to nine wins, which is why a Bears loss also clinches things for the Bucs, who already have nine wins.
7. Arizona (8-6, 6-4 in NFC)
The Cardinals took care of Philadelphia in Week 15, an outcome that seemed at least somewhat less certain after the Eagles beat the Saints in Jalen Hurts' first start. Unlike the Buccaneers, however, Arizona has to win its last two games to be sure of a playoff spot, as they only have a one-game lead on the Bears, and even the Vikings are still alive (if barely) in the hunt for the seventh spot. Arizona finishes with a home game against San Francisco, whom they already beat way back in Week One, and a trip to L.A. to play the Rams. Los Angeles whipped Arizona three weeks ago, 38-28.
On the outside…
8. Chicago (7-7, 6-5 in NFC)
The Bears and Vikings duked it out in Week 15 for the right to stay off postseason life support, and the Bears came out on top, 33-27. That keeps them just one game behind Arizona, with a very realistic path to the playoffs. The good news for Chicago is that they get the Jaguars this weekend and Jacksonville suddenly has the top spot in the 2021 draft and maaaaaybe a little less incentive to win this week. The bad news for Chicago is that Aaron Rodgers comes to town in Week 17. The Buccaneers would have preferred a Minnesota win in that NFC North showdown on Sunday because the Bears remain a potential problem for Tampa Bay. Thanks to their Week Five win over Tampa Bay, the Bears would win a tiebreaker with the Bucs if it came down to that at 9-7 each. Again, one win for Tampa Bay or one loss by Chicago eliminates the threat, but for now it's still there.
9. Minnesota (6-8, 4-6 in NFC)
To be clear the Vikings are no longer any threat to Tampa Bay, even without that head-to-head tiebreaker the Bucs own. But Minnesota can still get in if five things happen: The Vikings beat the Saints and Lions, the Cardinals lose to the 49ers and Rams and the Bears lose either one of their last two games. None of those outcomes by itself is too far-fetched but it's asking a lot to get all five.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
Tampa Bay makes its final road trip of the 2020 regular season for a special Saturday afternoon game in Detroit, with kickoff at 1:00 p.m. If you've gotten this far, you know that they can be the fourth NFC team to clinch a playoff spot by beating the Lions, which would make for a long and relaxing weekend to play with their new holiday toys. The Bucs are at home to wrap up the regular season, getting a rematch with the Falcons on January 3. It will mark the first time Tampa Bay has ever played the same opponent twice in the last three weeks of a season. Even if the Bucs have already clinched a playoff spot by then, they will still have the fifth seed in the conference – or even possibly a division title – to play for on that final Sunday.