FB Mike Alstott's touchdown leap helped the Bucs overcome the Falcons, and his two-point conversion in Week 10 could prove critical come tiebreaker time
It was a bizarre, up-and-down, emotionally challenging weekend for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, filled with leaps of hope, moments of despair and, at times, flat-out confusion.
And we're not just talking about the Bucs' indescribable overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday afternoon.
How else to describe the fact that the Buccaneers could be legitimately thrilled and yet also a bit worried by the Dallas Cowboys' comeback win over Carolina? Or that Chicago's win over Green Bay on Sunday both closed one door on the Bucs and removed one of Tampa Bay's playoff hurdles.
There were mixed messages from the full set of results in Week 16, to be sure, but one came through loud and clear: The Bucs are back in the driver's seat in the NFC South. Tampa Bay can win the division for the second time in its four-year existence by beating the 3-12 New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
"Back on top of the division, which is good," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "Dallas did us a favor against [Carolina]. It is important to take care of our business. It is always tight trying to get in the playoffs. We have an opportunity to win our division. If we win, it is ours."
It easily could have gone the other way. The Bucs' 27-24 win over the Falcons was earned only after a 28-yard overtime field goal by Atlanta's Todd Peterson was blocked by Dewayne White. A short time before that tremendous turn of events, Dallas scored the game-winning touchdown in Charlotte only after a missed field goal that would have tied the game was erased by a running-into-the-kicker penalty.
Those results combined to put the Bucs and Panthers back into a first-place tie at 10-5 each. For the Bucs, that is a virtual half-game lead, because they own the division-record tiebreaker over Carolina. If both teams finish 11-5 or 10-6, the title will go to Tampa Bay. Thus, only a Buc loss and a Carolina win at Atlanta next Sunday (ignoring ties, since they are so rare) would lead to a division crown for the Panthers.
And yet, as we said, there is reason for the Bucs to worry about that Dallas victory. Had the Cowboys lost, they would have been eliminated as a threat to catch the Buccaneers, which would have in turn put Tampa into the playoffs. They would have clinched a spot at the same time Chicago did on Sunday night.
How's that? Let us remind you of the playoff scenarios regarding the Buccaneers in Week 16 released by the NFL before the weekend of games. We'll put into bold type all of those occurrences which came to pass.
"Tampa Bay can clinch playoff berth with:
1) TB win + DAL loss or tie + WAS loss or tie, OR 2) TB win + DAL loss or tie + MIN loss or tie, OR 3) TB win + WAS loss or tie + MIN loss or tie, OR 4) TB win + DAL loss or tie + CHI win or tie, OR 5) TB win + WAS loss or tie + CHI win or tie."
As you can see, none of those five scenarios was completed in Week 16, though Numbers 2 and 4 almost came to pass. Had Carolina's Julius Peppers not given Dallas a second chance by running into kicker Billy Cundiff, the Panthers' win would, ironically have finished the necessary chain of events to put Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
Considering the position the Bucs now find themselves in regarding the division, they'll take that tradeoff.
Let's take a look at the current NFC standings, 16 weeks and 15 games into this unpredictable season:
|**Team**||**W-L**||**Conf. Rec.**||**Div. Rec.**||**Remaining Opponents**||**Opp. Win Pct.^**|
|* * *|
|Tampa Bay #||10-5||8-3||4-1||no||.200|
|N.Y. Giants +||10-5||8-4||4-2||@oak||.267|
Legend ^ Combined winning percentage of remaining opponents. * Clinched division title and homefield advantage throughout NFC playoffs. % Clinched division title and first-round bye. # Would currently win tiebreaker over Carolina for division title due to superior division record; would currently win tiebreaker over N.Y. Giants for third seed due to superior conference record. + Clinched playoff berth. & Would currently win tiebreaker over Dallas for final Wild Card spot due to head-to-head sweep.
The 16th week of the season did clear up some things. The Bucs eliminated Atlanta from the race and Minnesota fell out of contention with its 30-23 loss to Baltimore on Saturday night. Both of those teams, at 8-7, could top out at nine wins and couldn't beat Washington (9-6) in a tiebreaker if the Redskins lost in the final weekend.
In addition, the two first-round byes in the NFC were claimed, by Seattle and Chicago, respectively. Seattle got the first seed as expected with an easy win over a resting Indianapolis squad. Chicago had to work a bit harder to win at Green Bay on Sunday night, but by doing so they both won the NFC North and earned that often critical bye.
That was the double-edged sword of the Chicago game, as far as the Bucs were concerned. The Bears' win eliminated any lingering hope of getting the second seed, but it also meant the Vikings couldn't win the North, which was good news for the Buccaneers. Having beaten Minnesota and lost to Chicago, the Bucs were in a much better tiebreaker situation with the Vikings if it came down to that for a Wild Card spot. Of course, the Vikings made that point moot a bit later by losing to the Ravens.
In addition, a third NFC playoff berth was claimed as a result of Minnesota's loss...by the Giants. That's an unusual result, given that the Giants actually lost this weekend to Washington, allowing the Buccaneers to vault past New York in the standings. Tampa Bay is currently in third place in the conference standings, and the Giants are in fourth, but it's New York that knows it's in already.
That very strange scenario is a result of the differences in the tiebreakers between division opponents and non-division opponents.
It boils down to this: All of the teams in the 1-6 seeds are safe if they win or Dallas loses next weekend. Thus, we have to look at what happens in the opposite scenario, if the contending team loses and Dallas wins. In the case of the Giants, they would conceivably lose the NFC East (if Washington wins) but they would beat Dallas in a tiebreaker thanks to a superior division record.
However, if the Bucs and the Giants lose and Carolina, Dallas and Washington win, then the Bucs would be in a three-way tie for the two Wild Card spots with the Cowboys and Giants, all at 10-6. In that situation, the tiebreakers would first determine a winner from among the two NFC East teams, and that would be the Giants based on better division record.
The Giants would then be pitted against the Bucs for the five seed, and since those two teams would have the same conference record and the same record in common games (3-2), it would go down to strength of victory. That can't be fully determined at the moment because a lot of results go into the final strength of victory percentage.
(Strength of victory means the combined winning percentage of all of the team's beaten by the team in question. At the moment, the Bucs' strength of victory is .447, as is New York's while Dallas' is .467. But it will be affected in Week 17 by the results of all of the teams that the Bucs, Giants and Cowboys have beaten.)
If the Bucs were to win that tiebreaker against the Giants, then New York would again be pitted against Dallas for the sixth seed, and they would win that, again, on a better division record.
However, if the Giants were to win that tiebreaker against the Bucs, then Tampa Bay would be pitted against Dallas for the sixth seed. Once again, the two teams would end up with identical conference records (8-4) and records in common games (3-2). So, once again, it would come down to strength of victory, which we can't fully calculate at the moment. By the way, the loss that keeps the Bucs from beating both the Giants and Cowboys in the common games tiebreaker is the game at San Francisco. Both Dallas and New York beat the 49ers this year.
What that means, amazingly, is that virtually every game played next weekend could affect the Bucs' playoff chances...if they lose to New Orleans. If Tampa Bay drops its season finale, the Giants also lose and Carolina, Dallas and Washington all win, the Bucs will be forced to wait and see how the strength of victory numbers play out. What could give Buc fans pause is that each of those teams is playing a game in which it will be favored, against teams that have been eliminated. Carolina travels to Atlanta, Dallas is at home against St. Louis and Washington draws the shell of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Notice that we include a Giants loss in all of those troublesome scenarios. Here's why: If New York wins and thus wins the NFC East, then the worst-case scenario for the Buccaneers is a three-way tie for the two Wild Card spots with Dallas and Washington, all of whom would be 10-6. In that case, Washington would first knock out Dallas then be pitted head-to-head with the Buccaneers. Thanks to Mike Alstott's two-point conversion in a 36-35 win over the Redskins in Week 10, the Bucs would easily win that one thanks to the head-to-head victory. Washington would then drop back into a tiebreaker with Dallas for the sixth spot, and would win that again.
The best scenario, of course, has the Bucs beating the 3-12 Saints and letting the other teams worry about the scenarios. That isn't a foregone conclusion, as New Orleans has won its last three games in Tampa. However, the Bucs are sure to be sufficiently primed for that game, guarding against a fatal letdown against a struggling opponent.
"We're just going to look at the opponent, New Orleans," said linebacker Derrick Brooks of the playoff race. "[We're] not taking anything lightly. We know they've always played us tough. And, we expect a tough fight. We want to win our division. We have to go out here and take it."
The situation between the Bucs and Panthers is very simple. Carolina needs a win and a Buccaneer loss to take the division because in either other combination of results the two teams would be tied and the Bucs, having split with the Panthers, would win the next tiebreaker, division record.
So, in case it becomes necessary, here are the NFL's rules for breaking ties between two or more teams for the Wild Card:
TO BREAK A TIE FOR THE WILD-CARD TEAM If it is necessary to break ties to determine the two Wild-Card clubs from each conference, the following steps will be taken. 1. If the tied clubs are from the same division, apply division tie breaker. 2. If the tied clubs are from different divisions, apply the following steps.
Two Clubs 1. Head-to-head, if applicable. 2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference. 3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four. 4. Strength of victory. 5. Strength of schedule. 6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. 7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed. 8. Best net points in conference games. 9. Best net points in all games. 10. Best net touchdowns in all games. 11. Coin toss.
Three or More Clubs (Note: If two clubs remain tied after third or other clubs are eliminated, tie breaker reverts to step 1 of applicable two-club format.) 1. Apply division tie breaker to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step 2. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tie breaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two Wild-Card participants. 2. Head-to-head sweep. (Applicable only if one club has defeated each of the others or if one club has lost to each of the others.) 3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference. 4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four. 5. Strength of victory. 6. Strength of schedule. 7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. 8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed. 9. Best net points in conference games. 10. Best net points in all games. 11. Best net touchdowns in all games. 12. Coin toss
When the first Wild-Card team has been identified, the procedure is repeated to name the second Wild-Card, i.e., eliminate all but the highest-ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step 2. In situations where three or more teams from the same division are involved in the procedure, the original seeding of the teams remains the same for subsequent applications of the tie breaker if the top-ranked team in that division qualifies for a Wild-Card berth.