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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Playoff Push 2023: Bucs Need Week 18 Win to Clinch Division

Tampa Bay will take a third straight NFC South title if it wins on Sunday in Carolina, while the Saints and Falcons will be battling to take the crown if the Panthers help them out


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first opportunity to win the 2023 NFC South crown came and went in Week 17. The New Orleans Saints kept their own playoff hopes alive with a 23-13 win in Tampa and set up what could be an intense final weekend in the division, with three teams still in the running for the title and the final outcome for all four teams contained in just two games being played at the same time.

Meanwhile, the top seed in the conference has been locked up and two of the four divisions have been decided. There are six teams still vying for two remaining playoff spots and a whopping eight games that could factor into which teams make it and in what order they are seeded.

Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 17 weeks:

  1. San Francisco (12-4), NFC West Champion

The 49ers got everything they needed in Week 17, winning their own game in Washington with little trouble and watching as the Lions lost a thriller in Dallas and the Eagles were upset at the end by Arizona. That combination of outcomes clinched the top seed in the NFC and gave San Francisco the only first-round bye. They probably could have done without the calf injury that knocked running back Christian McCaffrey out of the game, but it is apparently minor and now they have three weeks before he really needs to play again.

  1. Dallas (11-5), NFC East Leader

Dallas and Philadelphia have been handing the top spot in their division back and forth over the last couple weeks, but this time the Cowboys have wound up in a very enviable position. They are in the driver's seat thanks to a fourth-level tiebreaker. Dallas and Philadelphia split their head-to-head series and each team is currently 4-1 in division play and 7-4 against common opponents. After passing all of those tiebreakers, the Cowboys take it on better record against NFC foes, 8-3 to the Eagles' 7-4. That means Dallas just needs to win at Washington on Sunday to take the division crown. If they do, they will continue a remarkable trend: No team has won that division two years in a row since Philly did it four straight from 2001-04. Dallas can also lose to the Commanders and still get in if the Eagles lose their road game against the Giants.

  1. Detroit (11-5), NFC North Champion

Dallas was the beneficiary of a crazy ending in its 20-19 win over Detroit on Sunday, but for the Lions it meant the path to the number-two seed in the conference is pretty narrow. The Lions need to win their own regular season finale against Minnesota and have both the Cowboys and Eagles lose. Otherwise, they will be locked into the three seed because they clinched the NFC North in Week 16 and they can't be caught by the eventual winner of the NFC South. The value of winning the second seed over the third seed is it guarantees you a second home game in the playoffs if you win the first one.

  1. Tampa Bay (8-8), NFC South Leader

The Buccaneers lost to the Saints to give up their one-game lead in the division but remain technically in first place thanks to a better record in common games (7-4 to 5-6). They are the only team in the division that can win the title simply by prevailing in its own game, thanks to that same tiebreaker. (If it matter, the Buccaneers also have the edge over New Orleans in conference record, strength of victory and strength of schedule.) Tampa Bay also knows that if it wins the division it is locked into the fourth seed in the NFC. Given that the Bucs have only played to a tie in one of their 758 regular season games as a franchise, it's an unlikely outcome but Tampa Bay could also win the division with a tie in Carolina plus a loss or tie by the Saints. If you like thinking about tie games (I decidedly do not), you should know that the Bucs could even get a Wild Card spot if they tie the Panthers, the Seahawks lose to the Cardinals and the Packers either lose to or tie the Bears. Finally, the Bucs already know that, if they do win the division, their potential first round opponent is down to two teams. Whichever team between Dallas and Philadelphia does not win the NFC East would be headed to Tampa.

View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 17 matchup vs. the New Orleans Saints.

  1. Philadelphia (11-5), Wild Card #1

The Eagles have lost four of their last five after a 10-1 start to go from the favorites to take the NFC top seed to the Wild Card field if they don't get some help from the Commanders. They have already locked up a playoff berth and can finish no lower than the fifth seed. Philadelphia will be rooting for Washington to pull off the upset over Dallas, which coupled with an Eagles win over the Giants at the Meadowlands would put them back in the top spot. Both games kick off at 4:25 p.m. The Eagles would be the second seed in the conference if they do get that combination of outcomes.

  1. L.A. Rams (9-7), Wild Card #2

The Rams continue to be on a heater, having now won six of their last seven outings after escaping from New York with a 26-25 win over the Giants. The team's only loss in that span was an overtime road loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who have the NFL's best record at 13-3. The Rams got a great piece of news as they were flying back to Los Angeles after beating New York, as the Steelers' win over Seattle locked them into a playoff spot. Since they are a game up on the 8-8 trio of Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans, the Rams can hang onto their number six seed by beating San Francisco. There are, however, some combination of outcomes that would drop them to the seventh seed, which would likely mean a trip to either Dallas or Philadelphia.

  1. Green Bay (8-8), Wild Card #3

It was a great weekend for the Packers, who not only beat the Vikings convincingly in Minnesota but also saw the Seahawks and Falcons lose. That left three teams at 8-8 and the Packers would win out over the Seahawks and Saints on tiebreakers if they all remain tied. The Saints would drop out first thanks to being one win worse in games against NFC opponents. The Packers-Seahawks tiebreaker process would go all the way down to strength of victory, in which Green Bay has a sizeable lead that Seattle can't overcome in one week. The Packers just have to win at home against Chicago (which sounded like a much easier task about six weeks ago) to hold onto that Wild Card spot. They would also get in with a loss if Minnesota, Seattle and either Tampa Bay or New Orleans all lose.

On the outside…

  1. Seattle (8-8)

The Seahawks had control of their own fate until their loss to Pittsburgh; now they need help. Their easiest pass to the playoffs is a win over the Cardinals in Arizona plus a loss by the Packers. However, they can also grab the final spot with a couple of scenarios including a tie against the Cardinals.

  1. New Orleans (8-8)

The Saints staved off elimination with a smothering effort at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. They did not, however, claim the proverbial "control of their own destiny" that is so highly coveted by playoff-seeking teams. The Saints get to finish their season at home against the Atlanta Falcons, and if they can win that they will have two paths to the playoffs. The most straightforward and desired one would be a Bucs loss to the Panthers, which would make New Orleans the NFC South champs for the fifth time in the last seven seasons. However, even if the Bucs win to nab that crown for a third straight time, the Saints could get in if they win and both the Seahawks and Packers lose.

  1. Minnesota (7-9)

The Vikings were the first team knocking on the door to the NFC playoff field going into Week 17, but their loss to the Packers put them into a very precarious position. They must win at Detroit to have any chance of making it, and they will need help from multiple teams. The Vikings could sneak in if they win, both the Packers and Seahawks lose and either the Bucs or Saints lose.

  1. Atlanta (7-9)

The Falcons are actually behind the Bears in the overall NFC standings after losing to Chicago, but they still have a path to the postseason while the Bears have been eliminated. That's because the Falcons can still win the NFC South, even if all their Wild Card avenues have been closed off. It's not even a complicated scenario: The Falcons have to win at New Orleans and the Buccaneers have to win at Carolina. With that outcome, Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay would all finish 8-9 but the Falcons would win the division because their 4-2 record within the division would be one win better than the Bucs and Saints, both of which would be 3-3.

What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:

This is about as simple as it gets. Win in Charlotte and the Bucs are NFC South champions for the third year in a row, and they will be locked into the fourth seed of the conference playoffs, waiting on a home game. Lose and they will be watching as the postseason begins. If the Bucs' do beat the Panthers, they will begin preparing for either the Eagles or the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs.

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