A loss at Cleveland in Week 12 didn't alter the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' spot in the NFC playoff-race field, but it did essentially codify the team's goals for the next six weeks. Basically, it's the division title or bust.
Last week, the playoff odds on FiveThirtyEight.com had just a two-percentage difference between the Buccaneers chances of making the postseason field (79%) and their chances of winning the NFC South (77%), which means there was only a tiny bit of wiggle room for a Wild Card berth. Now that the Buccaneers have dropped to 5-6 and remain a half-game ahead of the 5-7 Atlanta Falcons, that Wild Card margin is down to 1% (70% playoffs, 69% division title).
The problem is the NFC East, which currently holds four of the seven conference playoff spots. Those four teams will play each other multiple times over the next six weeks, which makes it nearly impossible for enough of them to crater to the extent that the Bucs or Falcons could slide up into one of the three playoff spots. The NFC South combatants also have Seattle (6-5) between them and Wild Card contention, though it's worth noting that both the Bucs and Falcons have beaten the Seahawks head to head this year.
So circle Weeks 13, 17 and 18 on your Bucs calendars. All six of the final regular-season games are important, but those three intra-division matchups will go the farthest in determining which team emerges with what will likely be the South's only playoff spot.
Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 12 weeks:
1. Philadelphia (10-1), NFC East Leader
The Eagles essentially ended Green Bay's playoff hopes with a 40-33 win on Sunday night that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. The Eagles had a two-score lead for most of the second half before a bit of a Jordan Love-inspired Packers rally. Philadelphia still has a showdown with the Cowboys looming in Week 16, so maintaining a two-game lead in the division is important. The Eagles also have both games remaining against the Giants, so they could determine whether or not their division rival holds on to its current spot in the playoffs. Their one-game lead over Minnesota for the only first-round bye is a little more comfortable than it sounds because they have a tiebreaker over the Vikings from a head-to-head win way back in Week Two. The Eagles can officially clinch a playoff spot this weekend with a win over Tennessee and losses by the Commanders, Seahawks and 49ers.
2. Minnesota (9-2), NFC North Leader
After a brutal loss to the Cowboys in Week 11, the Vikings got back on track on Thanksgiving with a hard-fought 33-26 win over the Patriots. Kirk Cousins belied his not-ready-for-prime-time reputation with a strong outing and the pass-catching trio of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and the recently-acquired T.J. Hockenson looks like one of the best in the league. Depending upon how you feel about the varying levels of legitimacy among the Jets, Lions, Colts, Giants and Packers, the Vikings could have one of the more manageable schedules over the next six weeks. Given the state of the rest of the NFC North, the division title is essentially locked up already; as a matter of fact, a Minnesota win over the Jets this weekend coupled with a Lions loss to Jacksonville would make it official. And given the state of the NFC South, the three seed is the floor for the Vikings, with the two seed still the most likely outcome.
3. San Francisco (7-4), NFC West Leader
The 49ers continue to look like the one team no one in the NFC wants to face right now (the Bucs go to San Fran in Week 14. San Francisco's swarming defense has allowed 14, 16, 10 and zero points over the team's last four games. The offense just lost running back Elijah Mitchell for what will likely be the rest of the regular season, though maybe that will push them to find ways to get Christian McCaffrey more involved. The 49ers' offensive output has tended to come and go this season, but there's no denying they have a dangerous array of weapons between McCaffrey, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. The 49ers have opened up a one-game lead in the West over the Seahawks, who have lost two in a row, but the two teams meet again in Week 15.
4. Tampa Bay (5-6), NFC South Leader
The Bucs were unable to channel their pre-bye momentum into Week 12 after their break, but they got a big assist from the Commanders, who beat Atlanta, 19-13. That meant that, despite their own overtime disappointment in Cleveland ,the Buccaneers are still in first in the NFC South, if only by half a game. Their regular-season finale in Atlanta is starting to loom larger and larger. Tampa Bay is now 0-4 against AFC teams this season, which obviously isn't ideal, but it does mean that their 5-2 conference record does look pretty good. Unfortunately, that's the fourth tiebreaker between two teams tied for a division lead. The first is head-to-head, which would become moot if Atlanta holds serve in Week 18. The second is record within the division, which is why we stressed the three remaining games against the Saints, Panthers and Falcons above. And the third is record in common games, which could actually render those games against AFC teams important. Atlanta has a win over Cleveland and still gets to play Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
5. Dallas (8-3), Wild Card #1
Dallas is on a tear and FiveThirtyEight.com now has their odds at making the playoff over 99%. Interestingly, four of their remaining six games come against AFC South teams, and that could be an advantage if the Colts fade down the stretch and the Jaguars continue to be more of a theoretical playoff threat. The Cowboys and Eagles will meet in Dallas in Week 16, and that's essentially a must win for the home team if it wants to have a chance at usurping the division lead. If the Buccaneers can hold onto the NFC South lead, they may be headed for a rematch with the Cowboys, whom they beat in Dallas in Week One, 19-3.
6. N.Y. Giants (7-4), Wild Card #2
The Giants are at a crossroads. After an encouraging 7-2 start in what many expected to be a rebuild year under first-year Head Coach Brian Daboll, New York has lost to Detroit and Dallas and now faces a daunting stretch run. Five of New York's last six games will be against Philadelphia, Washington and Minnesota. That schedule and the Eagles' 10-1 record almost certainly puts the division title out of reach, but even a Wild Card berth could slip away if the Giants have too much trouble with that murderer's row of upcoming opponents. FiveThirtyEight.com sees it as a coin flip, giving New York a 50% chance of making the playoffs.
7. Washington (7-5), Wild Card #3
In contrast to the Giants, the Commanders are on quite a roll. They are no longer "quietly" in the mix, now that their run of six wins in seven weeks has them in possession of the seventh seed. While it's true that five of those six teams have come against clubs with losing records – most recently Houston and Atlanta – they did give Philly its lone loss and a defense that is playing at a high level right now figures to get Chase Young back soon. And thanks to Brian Robinson, they've got big-hat energy right now. Two games against the Giants in the next three weeks should determine which of those two is the more legitimate playoff threat.
On the outside…
8. Seattle (6-5)
The Seahawks have gone from division leaders to the fringes of the playoff race, but the picture isn't that bleak yet. FiveThirtyEight still give them 66% playoff odds, and they are the one team in position to take advantage in the likely instance of one of the NFC East teams faltering. A home loss to the Raiders in Week 12 hurt, but the next two games at the Rams and at home against the Panthers should see them as heavy favorites. Seattle also gets the Rams at home to close out the regular season but in between must deal with the 49ers and Chiefs in back-to-back weeks.
9. Atlanta (5-7)
The Falcons are in the same boat as the Buccaneers in that a division title is very much in reach but a Wild Card berth is unlikely. They are only two games back of the number seven seed right now, but they just lost to that team, the Commanders. They do still have the benefit of a bye in Week 14, and four of their final five opponents currently have losing records, including the Buccaneers.
What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:
It's a return to prime time for the Buccaneers, who will face the Saints on Monday night at Raymond James Stadium in Week 13. Tampa Bay already won in New Orleans in Week Two, but their recent memories of playing New Orleans on Monday nights are not fond ones. It's no stretch to call this game absolutely crucial to their playoff hopes.