Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Stakes are Raised

While waiting for their Monday night contest, the Bucs saw the NFC playoff picture grow more crowded on Sunday

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TE Dave Moore and the Bucs know that a revenge win over St. Louis puts Tampa Bay back in the playoffs

Monday night's game needs added hype like Alex Rodriguez needs more disposable income.

But, on Sunday, another layer was added as wins by Green Bay, Detroit, New Orleans and the N.Y. Giants kept the NFC playoff field in serious doubt.

Here's what you knew going into this weekend's games: Tampa Bay would secure a playoff spot with a win over St. Louis.

Here's what you must realize now: While the above statement remains true, a loss to St. Louis would make Tampa Bay's game at Green Bay a must-win. The good news? Even with a loss on Monday night, the Bucs can lock up a playoff spot by beating Green Bay, regardless of what else happens around the league on the final weekend.

Let's start with the more positive scenario, which centers around revenge against the Rams for last January's NFC Championship Game loss. It would be a serious form of payback for the Bucs as a loss by St. Louis would have it on the outside of the playoff race looking in. Detroit would slip into the sixth seed for the time being thanks to a superior conference record over St. Louis (7-4 to 6-5).

A victory would also keep Tampa Bay alive in its suddenly reasonable quest to defend its NFC Central title. For that to occur, the Bucs would then need to win at Green Bay next Sunday while Minnesota lost at Indianapolis. That would leave both teams tied with an 11-5 mark, and the Bucs would win the tiebreaker thanks to a better winning percentage in common games. Both teams would have a 5-3 mark in division play (obviously common games), but the Bucs would raise their mark to 9-3 thanks to wins over Miami, Buffalo, New England and St. Louis. Minnesota beat those first three but lost to St. Louis and would thus be 8-4 in those common games.

Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, although they could finish tied for the conference's best record if the Giants also lost, New York would win the tiebreaker for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In fact, under that division-winning scenario, the Bucs could still end up playing on Wild Card weekend if the Saints beat the Rams to close out their regular season. All three division winners would then be 11-5, and the Bucs would have the worst conference record of the three.

Staying with the 'win-on-Monday-night' theme, what are the possible playoff repercussions for the Bucs if they follow that up with a loss at Green Bay?

If Philadelphia were to counter with a win over Cincinnati, the Eagles would take the fourth seed. If, at the same time, the Lions finished their season with a victory over Chicago, Detroit would take the fifth seed thanks to a better conference record than Tampa Bay. The Bucs would finish sixth, even if St. Louis beat New Orleans to get to 10-6, because Tampa Bay would have the benefit of its Week 16 win over the Rams. Head-to-head is always the first tiebreaker between two teams.

So now, in the interest of preparedness, let's examine what would happen if the Buccaneers were to lose to the Rams on Monday night.

First, be aware that another loss at Green Bay would eliminate Tampa Bay, which would finish 9-7. The Rams win in Raymond James Stadium would make them the fifth team with 10 wins, leaving the final wild card spot to be fought over between the Bucs, Packers and Lions. If Green Bay wins the season finale and the Lions also win, Detroit would get in with a superior 10-6 record. If the Lions lose to Chicago while the Packers win, all three teams would be 9-7 and the Packers would have the best division record.

However, if the Bucs were to follow a loss to the Rams with a win at Lambeau Field, they would be the sixth team to reach 10 wins. Detroit could tie the Bucs on that plateau with a win over Chicago, but Tampa Bay would have one more division win than the Lions and thus the crucial tiebreaker.

Complicated? Yes. A little nerve-wracking? Perhaps.

But the bottom line is this: one win in the last two games and Tampa Bay is in the playoffs.

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