No Easy Roads

The Buccaneers have forced their way into the thick of the NFC playoff race with a four-game winning streak and five victories in the last six weeks.  If they are going to finish that race with one of the top six spots, they’re going to have to earn it.

But they’re not the only ones.

The NFC field of playoff hopefuls features 10 teams at or above .500 after 10 games.  Many of those hopefuls, the Buccaneers included, face upcoming schedules that offer little margin for error.  Tampa Bay’s remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .600, for example…but that doesn’t even put the Bucs at the top of the list.  Let’s take a look.

Discounting the four teams currently leading their division (Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and the New York Giants) and the teams under .500 (though the 4-6 Redskins, Lions and Cardinals surely remain alive), we find six teams that are in the running for Wild Card spots.  That doesn’t mean the Buccaneers or any of the other teams on the list have given up on their division title hopes, but for the sake of this exercise, we’ll just focus on that half-dozen teams currently in contention for two spots.

Here are the six combatants, in descending order of strength of schedule…that is, the current combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents:

Team Rec. Remaining Opponents Opp. W%
Minnesota 6-4 @CHI, @GB, CHI, @STL, @HOU, GB .675
Tampa Bay 6-4 ATL, @DEN, PHI, @NO, STL, @ATL .600
New Orleans 5-5 SF, @ATL, @NYG, TB, @DAL, CAR .592
Green Bay 7-3 @NYG, MIN, DET, @CHI, TEN, @MIN .550
Seattle 6-4 @MIA, @CHI, AZ, @BUF, SF, STL .492
Dallas 5-5 WAS, PHI, @CIN, PIT, NO, @WAS .450

On one hand, the Vikings have a brutal schedule ahead, based on what their remaining opponents have done so far.  On the other hand, with four games left against Green Bay and Chicago, and only one game to make up in the NFC North standings, the Vikings also will have every opportunity to win the division.  What is particularly difficult about the final six weeks for Minnesota, however, is that four of their last six games are on the road, three of them against division leaders or co-leaders.  The Vikings are only 1-3 on the road so far (yes, that means the Buccaneers are the only visiting team to win in the Metrodome this season).  Like most of the six teams on the list, Minnesota has just one of its interconference games left; unfortunately for the Vikings, it’s against the top-seeded AFC team.

The Buccaneers have the second toughest remaining schedule, and like the Vikings that’s due in large part to a pair of remaining games against their own division’s leader.  Just like Minnesota, the Buccaneers can look at their two games against the 9-1 Falcons as a golden opportunity to make a run for the division title, but those games also spike their opponent winning percentage.  The other toughest matchup – on paper at least – is in Denver in two weeks.  The 7-3 Broncos are 4-1 at home this year, have won their last five and traditionally have one of the league’s most evident home field advantages.

The Saints have won five of their last six but have a tough test right off the bat with San Francisco coming to New Orleans on Sunday.  That’s followed by seemingly tough trips to Atlanta and New York, though the Saints generally play well in the Falcons’ home.  New Orleans will get two of their last three games at home, which could be a big advantage if they can get through the next three games in good shape.

The Packers are actually tied atop the NFC North with the Bears right now and are surely aiming their sights at another division title.  They’ll be able to decide that for themselves, most likely, as four of their last six games are against division foes.  Green Bay does have to play two of its last three games on the road, but two of its last three home games are against teams that currently have losing records.

The Seahawks are the only team on the list that have two interconference games remaining, and they’re both against teams that currently have losing records.  However, they are also both road games, and both long trips across the country, as they must still play at Miami and Buffalo.  The Seahawks draw the Bills in mid-December, which could add weather concerns to the mix.  Still, Seattle gets three of its last four games at home, where it is 5-0 already this year, and two of those three are against opponents that are currently under .500.

The Cowboys strength of schedule has nose-dived (to their advantage) with the struggles of their NFC East foes in Washington and especially Philadelphia.  Three of Dallas’ last six games are against those two teams, including two at home.  In fact, not only does Dallas have the “easiest” remaining schedule of these six teams, but they also have four of their last six games at home.  One of those four home games – against Pittsburgh in Week 15 – could be much more attractive to the Cowboys if the Steelers’ quarterback situation remains marred by injuries at that point.  Those hoping  to see Dallas pushed out of the playoff race may have to pin their hopes on Robert Griffin III, as the Cowboys and Redskins meet this Thursday and again in the last week of the season.

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