If you want to go down a rabbit hole of hypothetical month-of-December NFL outcomes, you can find a combination that would get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 4-8 to the playoffs. Here, let Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, whose attention to detail is as sharp as ever, be your guide.
That may not be the only set of game results that would lead to a Buccaneer playoff berth, but any alternatives are sure to be just as complicated, if not more so. This one requires 18 specific outcomes, only four over which the Bucs have any control. Needless to say, it starts with those four, a final-quarter sweep of Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans to end the Bucs' season.
While the details of such complicated scenarios may not be common knowledge in Tampa Bay's locker room, the players are realistic about their chances. They will fight to control what they can, take each week as it comes and try to finish the season strong regardless of their postseason possibilities. What's interesting is that, in doing so, they may end up being major players in the crowded NFC playoff hunt.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
Take another look at that list of upcoming opponents for the Buccaneers. The Saints, Panthers, Falcons and Lions are, respectively, the fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth seeds in the NFC right now. Minnesota and Philadelphia have the North and East divisions well in hand while a three-way battle in the South could end up with three teams in the playoffs. Either the Rams or Seahawks will win the West, with the other one very much in the Wild Card hunt. Dallas, at 6-6 like the Lions, remains a factor.
Six teams get in, which means the Buccaneers could be instrumental in bursting a bubble or two in that 4-8 seed range. In other words, Tampa Bay has an entire month's worth of opportunities to play spoiler.
Spoiling other team's playoff hopes isn't specifically a goal of the Buccaneers; rather, it's more like a potential byproduct of their actual goals. One of those is to prove that they are a better team than their 4-8 record indicates, one that has the talent to be in the playoff hunt even though it is not in anything more than a mathematical sense.
"It gives us an opportunity to finish the season strong – going into the offseason with a great taste in our mouths," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "You don't want to give up. Often times you see on ESPN, all these analysts say, 'Oh, the team gave up,' or, 'They packed it up.' That's not going to be us. We are never going to pack it up. We've got plenty of toughness, plenty of people ready to go fight for this thing and we are at home. We are in front of our fans. I know they have been disappointed with us the past few games, but we are at home. We like to put on a show for our fans, so we've just got to make sure we do that well, especially against a team of the magnitude of Detroit."
Wide receiver Mike Evans, a team captain like McCoy, said that Buccaneer players and coaches have not discussed what their remaining schedule means to the NFC playoff race. Head Coach Dirk Koetter advised the players in Wednesday's team meeting to simply keep doing their jobs, and that's Evans intends to do.
"[Playing spoiler] doesn't matter to me," he said. "I can't really speak for anybody else. I'm trying to win, no matter what, so I'm going to be out there trying to win. Football is supposed to be fun and it is for me, so [I'll] just keep playing."
Not only will the Bucs' fortunes be intertwined with the NFC playoff race over the next month, but they will also be at home for most of that time. Three of their last four games are at Raymond James Stadium, the exception being a contest in Charlotte on Christmas Eve day. Three of those games are also opportunities for the Buccaneers to avenge an earlier loss within the division, and one of them – against Atlanta in Week 15 – will be in front of a national stage on Monday Night Football. There are plenty of motivating factors for the Buccaneers in the month to come, and for Evans they boil down to one word.
"Pride," said Evans. "You want to win the football game when you play, so that's what we're playing for. We want to win no matter what the circumstances are."
It's been some time since the Buccaneers successfully played the role of playoff spoiler in the month of December. Tampa Bay helped Atlanta continue on a six-game slide after a 6-1 start with a win over the Falcons in early December in 2015, but the Falcons were only on the fringes at that point. Tampa Bay beat Atlanta late in 2012, both Seattle and New Orleans late in 2010 and New Orleans late in 2009 but didn't stop any of them from making the playoffs. A December win over New Orleans in 2003 didn't help the Saints' cause but they finished two games out of the playoffs, at 8-8.
One probably has to go back to 1996 to find a true example of a "spoiler" win for the Buccaneers, when a Tampa Bay team out of contention beat a contending team in the month of December and potentially cost that team a postseason berth. The Bucs' Week 15 victory over an 8-5 Washington team contributed to the Redskins' 9-7 finish, one game out of the playoffs. The stretch run in 2017 figures to offer multiple opportunities for such an impact on the playoff field, but if that happens it will be a secondary concern inside One Buccaneer Place.
"It's just important to go 1-0 this week," said Koetter. "That's the thing – they are all important and this week it's the Lions, so that is as important as it could be."