With two weeks left in the 2016 regular season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are chasing their first playoff berth in nine years. There is a combination of Week 16 game results that could result in the Buccaneers clinching that spot before the weekend is over; more likely, the crowded NFC race is going to come down to the wire.
The Buccaneers' chances of making the playoffs are quite good if they can win their last two games and finish at 10-6. For Tampa Bay fans, that part is easy: Cheer on the Bucs as they head to New Orleans this weekend and then finish up at home with the Carolina Panthers on New Year's Day.
But what about the rest of the league. Fifteen other games are spread out over Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Week 16, and most of them have the potential to impact Tampa Bay's playoff hopes in one way or another. To help you out, so that you don't waste time plotting all the scenarios when you should be taking care of your last-minute holiday shopping, here's a suggestion of which teams you should be rooting for this weekend.
New York Giants (10-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-9), Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET
The first game on the schedule is the most complicated one for the Buccaneers. There are solid reasons for the Buccaneers to root for a Giants win and a Giants loss, so let's present both sides of the argument. On one hand, a win by New York would keep them alive in the race for the NFC East title and the conference's first-overall seed. That in turn would seem to add motivation for the team they're chasing (and the team they've beaten twice), the Dallas Cowboys. Given that a Dallas win over Detroit on Monday night would be extremely helpful for Tampa Bay, Buc fans definitely want to see a motivated Cowboys squad. On the other hand, the Giants are leading the NFC Wild Card race and a loss would potentially help the Buccaneers catch them. If the Bucs win their final two games and the Giants lose their final two (they finish at Washington in Week 17), Tampa Bay would be assured of a Wild Card spot, at the least.
So which scenario do you prefer? Well, given that the "overtaking the Giants" option involves the Bucs winning twice, and that two Buc wins plus a Dallas win also guarantees Tampa a playoff spot, that second scenario could prove superfluous. We'll take the immediate gain of a motivated Dallas team.
Verdict: Go Giants!…And forget I ever said that if the Bucs end up facing them in the playoffs.
Miami Dolphins (9-5) at Buffalo Bills (7-7), Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Remember how we said "most" of this week's games have the potential to impact the NFC race? Well, this isn't one of them. This is an all-AFC East showdown, and while AFC-only games can still matter to the NFC in terms of strength-of-victory and strength-of-schedule tiebreakers, neither of these teams played the Bucs, Packers, Lions, Vikings or Giants this year. This game shouldn't impact any of the NFC tiebreakers; they did both play Seattle but Seattle's tie game is likely to keep it out of any tiebreaker scenarios. So which team gets your rooting interest? Well, the Dolphins are in playoff contention and an all-Florida Super Bowl would be a cool new thing, right?
Verdict: Go Dolphins, unless having the best record among Florida teams is something you'd like to brag about with your South Beach friends. Then, Go Bills! Or maybe just root for a really snowy game in Buffalo, since it will be Christmas Eve and all.
Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at Carolina Panthers (6-8), Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Alright, everyone, take a deep breath, hold your nose and repeat after us: "Go Panthers!" I mean, it's not like you didn't get some practice this past Monday night.
This one is obvious. The Buccaneers need to win one more game than Atlanta over the next two weeks in order to capture the NFC South title. If Carolina follows up its very helpful win over Washington with another victory against the Falcons in the early afternoon on Sunday, the Buccaneers could take the field in New Orleans knowing that they control their own playoff destiny. One guesses there will be plenty of motivation for the Panthers, who are still mathematically alive in the playoff race, but not in a realistic sense. After all, it was a trip to Atlanta in Week 16 last year that ruined the Panthers' perfect regular season. This seems like a good opportunity for some payback.
Verdict: Again, it may not feel right, but Go Panthers! And then hopefully the Carolina players all eat too much on Christmas and just feel lazy all the next week.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Thursday, December 22nd.
Washington Redskins (7-6-1) at Chicago Bears (3-11), Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET**
You probably don't need help figuring out who to root for in this one, but maybe you haven't yet heard how significant it could be. Obviously, given that tie on Washington's schedule, everybody above them in the standings is rooting for them to lose again so they're not in the mix at the end. Washington's 5-5 record in the conference isn't strong, but it wouldn't matter if they can't be involved in any tiebreakers. Beyond that, however, the Redskins are part of a four-team teaser that could result in the Bucs clinching a playoff spot even before Week 17. That's the combination of Week 16 games we referred to at the top, and it starts here with a Washington loss. If that happens and Minnesota beats Green Bay, the Bucs could put themselves on the verge of the playoffs by taking care of business on Saturday. Give us that trio of outcomes and we'll head into Monday feeling thisclose to the postseason. A Detroit loss would complete the four-game scenario and clinch a spot for Tampa Bay.
Verdict: Go Bears!
San Diego Chargers (5-9) at Cleveland Browns (0-14), Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
If you've got a soft spot for the underdogs or the downtrodden, maybe you're rooting for the Browns to find a way to get into the win column before the season is over. If so…stop it! You can root for Cleveland in Week 17 against Pittsburgh. This is one of those AFC games that does matter to Tampa Bay, because the Buccaneers beat the Chargers in Week 13. That means San Diego fits into the Bucs' "strength of victory" figure, and every time the Chargers win it makes Tampa Bay's SOV better. It is possible that strength of victory could figure into a tiebreaker at the end, and chances are the margin will be slim. For instance, as we explained on Tuesday, the Buccaneers would be ahead of the Packers and in the sixth spot in the NFC right now if Kansas City hadn't suffered a last-second loss to Tennessee on Sunday. Cleveland lost to the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins, so another loss by the Browns would hurt the SOV of each of those teams. It's not likely the Bucs will be in an SOV tiebreaker with any of those teams, but let's not take any chances.
Verdict: Go Chargers!
READ: 5 Bucs to WatchMinnesota Vikings (7-7) at Green Bay Packers (8-6), Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Are you ready to do some flip-flopping on the Packers? Start by rooting for the Packers to lose, which is fairly obvious since they're one of the teams the Bucs are most likely to be battling against for a Wild Card spot, if it comes to that. If Detroit then falls to Dallas on Monday night, then you'll become a Green Bay fan and put on a Cheesehead hat and all that in Week 17. Okay, don't go that far, but in that scenario a Packers win would be great for a 10-win Buccaneers team because the NFC North winner would be 9-7 and, more importantly, the loser of that final showdown would be 9-7. If the 10-win Bucs are in a Wild Card battle, then you could count the Lions out. If the 10-win Bucs are NFC South champs, then it would help in the seeding if the NFC North champs are 9-7. Sure, a Vikings win over Green Bay does widen the field of Wild Card combatants a bit, but Minnesota's in bad shape in the conference-record tiebreaker.
Verdict: Skol Vikings!
Tennessee Titans (8-6) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12), Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Believe it or not, you need to root for Tennessee in this one. Tennessee is in the AFC playoff race, but that's irrelevant to the Buccaneers. What matters is that the Titans beat Detroit and Green Bay while Jacksonville lost to both of those teams. So an upset by the Jaguars would improve the SOV percentages for the Lions and Packers, and a loss would hurt those same marks. (Minnesota beat both Tennessee and Jacksonville, so this game is going to be an SOV wash for the Vikings.)
Verdict: Go Jags!
New York Jets (4-10) at New England Patriots (12-2), Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
This is the other all-AFC East matchup, and it's equally irrelevant to the Buccaneers. Or maybe even a little less relevant than Bills-Dolphins. Seattle played both of these teams, but beat both of them, so no matter wo wins between the Jets and Patriots it's going to work out the same on the Seahawks' SOV.
(Explanation point-free) verdict: Go underdogs, just for the heck of it.
Indianapolis Colts (7-7) at Oakland Raiders (11-3), Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET
Indianapolis beat Green Bay and Minnesota but lost to Detroit, so you know the Packers will be rooting for the Colts. For the Buccaneers, however, this is more of a SOS thing than an SOV thing. That "SOS" is strength of schedule, and that refers to the combined winning percentage of all the teams you have played, not just the ones you've beaten. So the Packers and Lions both get an SOS bump from a Colts win. On the other hand, the Buccaneers played the Raiders. Oakland won that game so the Bucs can't get SOV help, but they can see their SOS go up a little bit.
Verdict: Go Raiders!
San Francisco 49ers (1-13) at Los Angeles Rams (4-10), Saturday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Such is the impact of a playoff race that could conceivably come down to strength of victory tiebreakers that we have any interest in a West Coast game in Week 16 between two teams with a combined five victories. This one is simple, though: The Buccaneers beat San Francisco and lost to the Rams, so a 49ers win is better for Tampa Bay's SOV. Don't forget, San Fran's lone victory of the season came in a Week One 28-0 thumping of the Rams.
Verdict: Go 49ers!
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Saints.
Arizona Cardinals (5-8-1) at Seattle Seahawks (9-4-1), Saturday, 4:25 pm. ET**
Okay, here's a tough one. Right away you'll notice that this is a team to which the Bucs lost (Arizona) playing a team the Bucs defeated (Seattle). Therefore, a Seahawks victory is yet another improvement in that SOV category we keep talking about. Sure, that would be a good thing. It's the other way around for Atlanta, but that's not really important because no Bucs-Falcons tie is going to get past the division-record and common-games tiebreakers. But let's give up one little SOV bump and take the long view here. If the Buccaneers win the NFC South, they'll be jockeying for position among the division winners. Believe it or not, the possibility of a first-round bye still exists for the Bucs if they win the NFC South at 10-6. Among other things, it would take this Arizona win and a monumental upset by San Francisco over the Seahawks in Week 17. That's asking a lot, but it's not impossible. Let's dare to dream!
Verdict: Go Cardinals (but we won't be too disappointed if it goes the other way).
Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1) at Houston Texans (8-6), Saturday, 8:25 p.m. ET
By the time this one is wrapping up, you'll probably be rooting primarily for the kids to finally go to sleep so you can start assembling bicycles and such. You may not be motivated to follow this one too closely, and we can't blame you. This one isn't particularly important to the Buccaneers, but Green Bay did beat Houston, so let's give this one to the Bengals and hope that little gift makes them happier at the end of a rough year.
Verdict: Go Bengals!
Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
There are two games on Christmas Day and they're all AFC. They may not have a strong impact on the Bucs' finish, but they are definitely a pair of hugely entertaining matchups, beginning with this showdown atop the AFC North. Pittsburgh beat Washington and the Giants while Baltimore lost to both of those teams, but that's probably not enough SOV or SOS significance to really worry about. Just forget about all that and enjoy the latest installment in this entertaining rivalry.
Verdict: Go AFC North drama while we're opening gifts!
Denver Broncos (8-6) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4), Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Here's another epic division rivalry between two teams that have playoff aspirations. The defending-champion Broncos are getting close to desperate, while the Chiefs are still trying to overtake Oakland for the AFC West title. This one is going to be good. If you want to get all selfish on Christmas night and worry about what it means to the Bucs, then fine, root for the Chiefs. Tampa Bay beat K.C. and lost to Oakland, so this is purely an SOV thing.
Pictures of the Saints' starting offense and defense, according to the team's depth chart.
Verdict: Go Chiefs!*
Detroit Lions (9-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-2)
Week 16 began with a critical game for the Bucs and ends in the same way, but even more so. While there are various reasons to pull for either team in the Giants-Eagles affair, as noted above, this one is cut-and-dried. We've covered most of this above, but here are two notes worth repeating: 1) A Detroit loss is all the Buccaneers need to add to their own potential two wins in order to guarantee Tampa Bay a playoff spot; and, 2) The four-result combo that clinches a spot for Tampa Bay this week includes a Buc win and losses by Green Bay, Washington and Detroit. Hopefully, this one is finishing up that bill on Monday night.
Verdict: Go Cowboys! (And really, you owe us one, Dallas.)