Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Playoff Update: Root for Cardinals, Ravens

With four weeks to play, the Bucs are on the cusp of a playoff spot but still have work to do…A little help from such teams as Arizona, Baltimore and even Carolina would be nice, too.

Tampa Bay's thrilling win over Atlanta on Sunday ensured that the Buccaneers remained relevant in the NFC playoff race. As such, when Lovie Smith meets with his team on Wednesday morning, he'll make sure the players know exactly where the Buccaneers' stand in that chase and what they need to happen in order to be playing past January 3.

Photos of Jameis Winston's run on 3rd-and-19, and the game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Evans.

Smith has already made it clear that he believes the Bucs need to run the table in order to win a playoff spot. The unfortunate reality is that his team could do exactly that and still be left out, depending upon what happens elsewhere in the league over the next four weeks. So, while the Buccaneers have their own business to take care of, they also have permission to do a little scoreboard watching. And so do we.

Let's take a look at the NFL's slate of games in Week 14 and determine where, as Buccaneer fans, are rooting interests should be. But first, the updated NFC playoff picture:

Seed

Rec.

Notes

  1. Carolina

12-0

Has already clinched the NFC South title

  1. Arizona

10-2

Could clinch NFC West in Week 14

  1. Green Bay

8-4

Head-to-head win vs. MIN is current tiebreaker

  1. Washington

5-7

Current 2-1 record vs. NYG, PHI is tiebreaker

  1. Minnesota

8-4

Packers and Vikings play again in Week 17

  1. Seattle

7-5

Toughest remaining matchup at AZ in Week 17

--

  1. Tampa Bay

6-6

Head-to-head tiebreaker over Atlanta

  1. Atlanta

6-6

Hurt by 0-3 division, 4-5 conference records

  1. Philadelphia

5-7

Bucs would have head-to-head tiebreaker here

  1. N.Y. Giants

5-7

But not here

  1. Chicago

5-7

Bucs and Bears to play in Tampa in Week 16

Carolina has already won the division, so the Buccaneers can only get in as a Wild Card team. Realistically, that means they are chasing the Seahawks and the loser of the battle for the NFC North. If the Bucs win out, they don't have to worry about Atlanta, and if they are caught by any of the 5-7 teams they likely won't have enough wins to catch Seattle.

If the Buccaneers catch but do not pass Seattle, and they are the only two teams tied for the final Wild Card spot, the first tiebreaker would be conference record. Currently, Seattle is 6-4 in that department while the Buccaneers are 5-3. That actually favors Tampa Bay because they have the potential to go 9-3 while the Seahawks, who still have games remaining against two AFC teams (Baltimore and Cleveland) would max out at 8-4.

Now for this week's relevant games, and who you should root for:

Minnesota at Arizona (Thursday night)

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This one is easy – root for Jason Licht's former team in the desert. The only scenario that would involve the Bucs and Cardinals having any sort of tiebreaker situation would involve Arizona losing out, and that's very unlikely. Meanwhile, a loss by Minnesota and a win by the Buccaneers in Week 14 would put Tampa Bay just one game behind the Vikings, and the Bucs would have a superior conference record (6-3 to 5-4) at that point.

The Vikings rely on Adrian Peterson, the league's leading rusher, to power their offense but Arizona sports the league's fourth-ranked run defense. Minnesota has the advantage of three straight home games before heading to Green Bay in Week 17, so a Viking loss in this first one might be the Bucs' best chance to pick up ground.

*The verdict: Go Cardinals!

*

Atlanta at Carolina

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On the surface, this is an easy one, too. Even though the Buccaneers have a strong tiebreaker edge over Atlanta with their season sweep, it would still be better to have the reeling Falcons completely out of the picture. A sixth straight loss would put the Falcons on very thin ground at 6-7.

Meanwhile, the undefeated Panthers have already won the NFC South, so what does it hurt if Cam and company add one more win. Well, there is the complicated issue of motivation. If Tampa Bay is going to run the table as Smith thinks is necessary, that will have to include a Week 17 win at Carolina. Now, the Buccaneers are currently brimming with confidence and believe they can match up with any team in the league, so the coaches and players aren't worrying about what the Panthers have to play for on December 28.

From a fan's perspective, however, it's worth considering that motivation factor. On one hand, if the Panthers win their next three, they will likely head into the finale highly motivated to complete the third perfect regular season in the Super Bowl era. On the other hand, if Carolina loses a game, they might see their top seed in the NFC field in jeopardy and will be motivated to lock down home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The best-case scenario for the Buccaneers is one loss for the Panthers and one for the Cardinals along the way so that neither of those issues come into play in Week 17.

With four weeks out, that's still too complicated of a scenario to worry about. *

The verdict:* *Go Panthers!

*

Washington at Chicago

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This is the first tough decision. The Buccaneers want to avoid any tiebreaker scenario with the Redskins due to their Week Seven loss at FedExField. However, the Bears are also one game behind the Buccaneers and will be highly motivated if they are still there when they come to Tampa on December 27.

Of course, a Washington win would also keep the Redskins in first place in the NFC East, despite a 6-7 record. If the Redskins hang on to win the division, the Buccaneers don't have to worry about any tiebreaker situation with them. They're better off going up against the Eagles in that scenario. And, again, a tie at the end of the season with any of those 5-7 teams would mean a 9-7 record at best for the Buccaneers, and there's a very good chance Seattle will get to at least 10 wins.

In other words, this game probably won't make a huge difference in the Bucs' chances in the long run, so take the minor positives of Washington winning the East and Chicago losing hope.

The verdict: Go Redskins!

Buffalo at Philadelphia

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Easy rule of thumb for December, especially now that the Bucs have completed their own interconference slate: Always root for AFC teams against NFC teams.

The Eagles will likely need to win the East – which is obviously quite possible given that they're tied for the lead and finish the season against Washington and New York. The Bucs have a head-to-head tiebreaker against Philly and a better conference record than all three of those East teams. In other words, the Eagles are not even close to the biggest threat to the Bucs' playoff hopes, but again, we might as well root for them to get another loss in a game that doesn't help any other NFC team.

The verdict: Go Bills!

Dallas at Green Bay

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Some of you might find it difficult to root for the Cowboys in any situation, but in this case you need to take one for the team. Besides, there should be some residual Packer animosity built up from the Bucs' days in the Black and Blue Division.

Dallas is, amazingly, still very much alive in the NFC East race after their win over Washington on Monday night. And more power to them. It matters little to the Bucs' hopes which of those four teams wins that division. And in the extremely, extremely unlikely event that the Bucs and Cowboys end up tied for a Wild Card spot, the Bucs have a head-to-head win over Dallas in their back pockets.

The Packers, however, are still within the Bucs' sights if they end up losing the NFC North to Minnesota. The best-case scenario for Tampa Bay is that both Minnesota and Green Bay lose at least once, if not twice, before they meet in Green Bay in Week 17. The Vikings only have NFC opponents left on their schedule, so their current 5-3 conference record would suffer with one, two or three losses in the next month. The Packers are 6-3 in conference play and have a tough Week 16 matchup in Arizona. The Bucs would love to see a pair of 9-6 or (fingers crossed) 8-7 teams squaring off at Lambeau on January 3, with the loser falling into a tiebreaker with them.

So suck it up, Dallas haters, at least for this week.

The verdict: Go Cowboys!

Seattle at Baltimore

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Again, apply the NFC vs. AFC rule here. This game is probably the most important one of the week for the Buccaneers, other than their own matchup with the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium. A loss by Seattle and a win by Tampa Bay and all of a sudden the Bucs would see their name slide over from the "Also in the Hunt" column to the "If the Playoffs Started Today" column.

They would leapfrog the Seahawks in that scenario thanks to a slightly superior record in conference games. A win over the Saints would make the Bucs 6-3 against NFC opponents while the Seahawks would remain at 6-4. Obviously, that's a tiebreaker that would potentially change over the subsequent three weeks, but for the time at least the Bucs would own the second Wild Card spot.

This one is obvious.

The verdict: Go Ravens!

N.Y. Giants at Miami

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The Giants' win in Tampa in Week Nine is a mild concern for the Buccaneers, but once again, the season ending with the Bucs tied with one of the 5-7 teams for a Wild Card spot is fairly unlikely. Still, the Giants are playing an AFC team, so there's no reason to root for them.

Though it's likely an afterthought, a Giants loss on Monday night is the favored outcome. *

The verdict: Go Dolphins!*

**

So, did you get all that? In addition to cheering on the Buccaneers this week, it would be wise to root for the Cardinals, Panthers, Redskins, Bills, Cowboys, Ravens and Dolphins in Week 14. Check back in Week 15, though. It could be a completely different story by then.

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