The Bucs expect to lean on veterans like FB Mike Alstott who have been through tight playoff races before
The weekend didn't start particularly well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who played and lost the first game on the NFL's Week 15 slate on Saturday, but it finished up nicely.
The Buccaneers did surrender one important playoff foothold with their loss at New England, as they no longer control their own destiny in the hunt for the NFC South title. The Bucs' loss, coupled with Carolina's win over New Orleans, gave control of the division back to the Panthers, who are a game up on Tampa Bay and two up on Atlanta. However, the Bucs still hold a tiebreaker edge over the Panthers, so two Tampa Bay wins and one Carolina loss in the last two weeks would give the Bucs the South crown for the second time in four years.
Thanks to a collection of favorable results on Sunday, the Bucs still control their own fate in terms of earning a spot in the six-team NFC postseason field. Losses by Atlanta, Minnesota and Dallas on Sunday left the Bucs as the only 9-5 team behind the four division leaders. Those other three teams and Washington are all 8-6. The other seven teams in the NFC have been eliminated from the race.
Six years ago, the Bucs were 9-5 after returning home from a 45-0 pounding in Oakland. They proceeded to win their last two games, both intra-division contests, to finish 11-5, win the NFC Central and earn a first-round bye. This year's Bucs would need a little outside help to duplicate that first-round bye, but otherwise the scenario is remarkably similar. It also has echoes in the 2000-02 seasons, when Tampa Bay made strong December runs to secure playoff spots.
There are plenty of Bucs remaining from those previous playoff runs to know what it takes to prevail in must-win situations, veterans like Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Mike Alstott, Anthony McFarland and Brian Kelly.
"We're going to lean on our veteran football players who have been down this road before," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "And we're going to try to fill up some of our younger players' tanks with a little bit more fuel and try to round our team into as good of shape as we can for this upcoming game. Atlanta will come in here with a very talented roster and they are the defending Southern champions."
The Bucs beat the Falcons in Atlanta in Week 11 and could virtually eliminate the Falcons from the race by completing the sweep on Saturday. A win in that game would be the 10th of the season for Tampa Bay and their eighth in the conference, which would put the Buccaneers in a very enviable position in the playoff race. A win coupled with a Dallas victory at Carolina would also put the Bucs back into first place with one week to go.
That is a lot of "woulds" and "what-ifs," however. For now, let's look at the current NF standings, 15 weeks and 14 games into this thrilling 2005 season:
|**Team**||**W-L**||**Conf. Rec.**||**Div. Rec.**||**Remaining Opponents**||**Opp. Win Pct.^**|
|* * *|
|Seattle *||12-2||10-1||6-0||ind, @gb||.593#|
|Chicago %||10-4||9-1||4-0||@gb, @min||.407#|
|N.Y. Giants +||10-4||8-3||4-1||@was, @oak||.429|
|Tampa Bay||9-5||7-3||3-1||atl, no||.393|
|Washington @||8-6||8-2||3-1||nyg, @phi||.571|
Legend ^ Combined winning percentage of remaining opponents. * Clinched division title and first-round bye. % Would currently win second seed and first-round bye over New York Giants and Carolina due to superior conference record. + Would currently win tiebreaker for seeding over Carolina due to superior conference record. @ Would currently win tiebreakers over Dallas, Atlanta and Minnesota for final Wild Card berth. Would eliminate Dallas first with 2-0 head-to-head record, then would beat Atlanta and Minnesota with superior conference record. # Opponent winning percentage does not include result of Monday night game between Green Bay and Baltimore.
Washington made the biggest jump of the weekend, moving from the bottom of the list of contenders all the way up to the six seed. While the whole "if the season ended today" angle can be overplayed – because, obviously, it doesn't end today – that move by Washington is still critical. They now control their own fate...if the Redskins win their final two games, they're in. Of course, one of those remaining two games is against the division-leading Giants, so it's no easy road for the 'Skins.
The top three seeds in the race stayed the same as Seattle, Chicago and the Giants all won. And, since they now have 12 wins and unbeatable tiebreaker advantages over New York and Carolina, the Seahawks can finish no worse than the second seed. They will watch the first round of the playoffs from the comfort of their living rooms.
The Panthers and Bucs effectively switched places in the four and five seeds. That's important...obviously. It's important specifically because the team that finishes with the fifth seed will play on the road at the home of the four seed in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Thus, it could come down to those division rivals either way, but with home field advantage at stake. The current standings would send Washington to New York for another intra-division rematch in the opening round. Chicago would get the other first-round bye.
Only Seattle has clinched a playoff spot in the NFC. Even the Bears, who are 10-4 and have a 9-1 conference record, could still miss the postseason. That would require Chicago losses at Green Bay and Minnesota, a Viking win at Baltimore in Week 16 and two wins apiece for the Buccaneers and Redskins. That very specific scenario would give the NFC North to Minnesota and the two Wild Card spots to Tampa Bay and Washington.
Obviously, the chances are that Chicago will make it into the field of six. The Bucs' foothold isn't quite that strong, but it's not bad, either. Here are a few points of encouragement heading into the last two weekends of regular-season play:
- As stated above, two wins by the Buccaneers will get them into the playoffs and, at worse, the fifth seed. 2. Two wins by the Buccaneers and at least one loss by Carolina would make Tampa Bay the NFC South champs. It would not matter which of their last two games the Panthers lost (vs. Dallas and at Atlanta) because the Bucs would still have a superior division record under that scenario. 3. The Bucs can still take the second seed and get a first-round bye, although the path isn't as simple as it was a week ago. In addition to catching the Panthers, the Bucs would have to pass Chicago, and that would require two wins and two Bear losses because Chicago holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over Tampa Bay. The Bucs would have to catch the Giants, too, but the tiebreaker there isn't as bleak. The two teams haven't played this year and, if New York loses to Washington next week the Bucs could pass the Giants in the conference-record tiebreaker. 4. The Bucs' victories over Minnesota and Washington earlier in the season remain potentially important. If the Bucs end up squabbling with either of those teams for the final playoff spot, those head-to-head edges might be the difference. However, because Washington and Minnesota did not play each other this season, the head-to-head tiebreaker would not be applied if all three teams ended up in a tie for the final playoff spot.
Tampa Bay's loss on Saturday was a painful one, particularly as it was their first shutout defeat in six years. However, the team was determined to put it in the rear view mirror and focus on the still ripe opportunity awaiting them in the last two weeks. That is easier to do if one takes a slightly wider view of the team's recent fortunes and immediate future. That is, it was certainly a positive development to win two out of three games during a brutal three-game road swing in December. And, if the Bucs had to lose one of their last three games, the Patriots matchup does the least to hurt their tiebreaker strength. Road wins at Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans have put Tampa Bay in position to finish with very strong intra-conference and intra-division records, if they can prevail in their final two home games against the Falcons and Saints.
That makes Saturday's game against Atlanta the biggest one yet for Tampa Bay. Played on Christmas Eve day, that will be one of several enormous matchups over the weekend. The Cowboys play at Carolina and Washington travels to New York in two other games that pit a pair of NFC playoff contenders. The Seahawks (vs. Indianapolis) and the Bears (at Green Bay) also face potentially tough hurdles to maintain their positions.
"We have positioned ourselves to potentially make the playoffs," said Gruden. "We still potentially can win the NFC South. Heading into Week 15, with the kind of division that we're in, one of the most difficult divisions in all of football in my opinion, we have positioned ourselves for an exciting season. And now it's a matter of making the corrections, acknowledging that we got beat by a very good football team, making the corrections, being honest with our performance with not being good enough [Saturday]. At the same time, we're feeling pretty good about winning two out of three on the road following a tough setback to the Chicago Bears. We are excited about playing at home and we're looking forward to playing much better than we did [Saturday]."
Since the division title scenarios between the Bucs and Panthers are pretty straightforward, and since there are five teams fighting for two NFC Wild Card berths, we will take a look this week at the Wild Card tiebreakers. 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.