The Ones to Watch

As we discussed in Monday’s updated look at the NFC playoff race, the Buccaneers are very much in the thick of the Wild Card hunt but the NFC South title is almost out of reach, given Atlanta’s four-game lead with five to play.  That latter scenario actually makes this week’s Thursday night game a pretty easy call for Buccaneer fans: as much as it probably hurts, it makes sense to root for Atlanta to defeat the 5-6 Saints.

We’ll get to the issue of “Who Do I Root For?” regarding the rest of Week 13′s schedule on Friday.  Right now we want to look at the NFC homestretch as a whole and identify the games, outside of Tampa Bay’s own, that are likely to have the most bearing on the Bucs’ playoff hopes.  The Thursday-night NFC South showdown is definitely one of them.

First, here’s how the Wild Card picture in the NFC currently looks after the division leaders Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and the New York Giants:

Team Rec. Conf. Rec.
1. Green Bay 7-4 3-5
2. Seattle 6-5 4-4
3. Tampa Bay 6-5 3-5
4. Minnesota 6-5 4-4
5. Washington 5-6 5-4
6. Dallas 5-6 4-5
7. New Orleans 5-6 3-4

We’ve included conference record in this table because it is the most common tiebreaker in Wild Card situations, and because it is currently the reason that Seattle is holding on to the second spot over Tampa Bay.

Given those seven competitors, here are seven games that Buccaneer fans are going to be watching closely over the next five weeks.  None of Tampa Bay’s own games are included because, well, it’s quite obvious how important those are to the Bucs’ playoff hopes.

* Week 13 (Thurs.)…New Orleans at Atlanta

We would likely be pulling for the Saints had the Bucs been able to overcome that one-point deficit against Atlanta on Sunday, because then the NFC South title would still be very much in doubt.  However, given that the Falcons only have to win two of their last five no matter what the Bucs do to take the division, it seems more important to push the Saints farther down the list.

The Saints beat the Falcons in Week 10 in New Orleans, 31-27, giving Atlanta its only loss so far.  The rematch will be in the Georgia Dome, and that might seem to swing the pendulum back in favor of the first-place team.  However, the Saints have simply owned the Falcons in recent years, and they’ve had no problem going into Atlanta and coming away with a victory.

In fact, New Orleans has won 11 of its last 13 against the Falcons, including five of the last six meetings in the Georgia Dome.  This one is no easy task for Atlanta, despite their five-game lead over the Saints in the NFC South.

* Week 13…Minnesota at Green Bay

The Vikings started the season 4-1 but haven’t looked particularly strong since, despite the fabulous comeback season being engineered by RB Adrian Peterson.  They have lost four of six since and have come up short against most of the NFC’s other playoff contenders, losing to Washington, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Chicago.

Green Bay, meanwhile, looked to be rounding back into Super Bowl-contention form after a 2-3 start to the season, winning five straight up through Week 11.  That included a big win at Houston that accounts for that AFC powerhouse’s only loss so far.  However, Sunday night’s 38-10 thrashing at the hands of the Giants put a bit of a damper on that run, and also knocked the Packers out of a share of first place in the NFC North.

This one could seriously affect the Bucs’ spot in the standings no matter which way it goes.  Obviously, the #5 seed in the NFC field isn’t out of reach for Tampa Bay, with the Packers just a game ahead.  On the other hand, Minnesota is one of the two teams currently tied with the Bucs for the #6 spot.  We’ll get into who to root for on Friday, but know that the Vikings haven’t beaten the Packers, home or away, since 2009.

* Week 13…Seattle at Chicago

The Seahawks have the inside track on the #6 seed at the moment, and their upcoming schedule doesn’t seem that daunting to some analysts.  That’s because three of their remaining five games are at home, where the Seahawks have played very well this year, and three of the last five are also against losing teams.

On the other hand, the Seahawks just dropped a road game to a losing team on Sunday as the Miami Dolphins came back for a 24-21 victory.  Seattle will get another chance at a difficult-to-predict AFC East team on the road in Week 15, at Buffalo, but on paper their toughest remaining test appears to be this one, at Chicago this coming Sunday.

Jay Cutler returned for Chicago this past weekend and that clearly made a big difference as the Bears smothered the Vikings.  Buc fans will be rooting for Chicago to stay hot for at least one more week.

* Week 15…Green Bay at Chicago

Since this one is a few weeks off, it’s difficult to say for sure which way Buccaneer fans will be rooting, but it’s almost certain to be steeped in playoff implications.  At the moment, it’s the Packers that are closest to Tampa Bay in the standings, and the Packers who would seem to have the tougher test in Week 15, going on the road against a division rival.

Tell that to Green Bay, however.  Soldier Field has definitely not scared them away in recent years; they’ve beaten Chicago five straight times and seven of the last eight, and three of those wins have come on the road.  An NFC North game in Chicago in mid-December certainly conjures up visions of hard-hitting, low-scoring defensive struggles, but both of these teams are well-equipped to put up big points in almost any conditions.  This one is likely to be very entertaining on its own merits, but of particular interest to Buccaneer fans.

* Week 16…New Orleans at Dallas

It is possible that this one won’t mean much to Buccaneer fans by the time December 16 rolls around.  If both the Saints and the Cowboys drop a game or two in the interim, they could be on the very fringes of the playoff race at that point, at best.

But we’re not counting on that.  The Cowboys’ 2012 season has been a roller coaster, and it took a tough dip on Thanksgiving with a 38-31 loss to the Redskins, but they will be heavily favored this coming Sunday night against the floundering Eagles.  After that, they have a tough draw at Cincinnati but could emerge from that at 7-6.  The Saints also have a tough fortnight ahead, playing at two division leaders in the Falcons and the Giants; however, we already discussed their prowess in Atlanta and a Drew Brees-led offense is a match for the occasional fireworks New York has been setting off at home.

If both teams can hit Week 15 still in the playoff race, this one will almost surely decide which one is still relevant in Week 16.

* Week 17…Green Bay at Minnesota

If the Vikings can pull off the upset at Lambeau Field this week, this rematch in Week 17 will likely take on much more importance.  Either way, Buccaneer fans should expect to be watching this one with the rooting interest of one of the NFC North teams knocking the other one out of contention (or at least contention for the #6 seed).  Even if Minnesota’s tough schedule ahead pushes them to the fringest of the race, they could help the Buccaneers in the final weekend by playing spoiler.

And who knows? Adrian Peterson could be battling the Bucs’ Doug Martin for the NFL’s yards-from-scrimmage title in the final week.  That could be extra motivation for Peterson to have a big day, taking down the Packers in the process.

* Week 17…Dallas at Washington

It’s a good bet that this will be one of the most critical games on the NFL’s final-week schedule…as if a Cowboys-Redskins matchup needs added fuel.

Even though both of these teams sit a game behind the Wild Card leaders heading into December, they are still significant concerns for the Buccaneers, and the rest of the field.  Washington has won two in a row, scoring 69 points in the process, and has an offensive leader in rookie QB Robert Griffin III who appears capable of putting together a masterful performance on any given game day.  Dallas, as mentioned, has the advantage of a more favorable schedule leading up to this showdown.

Most importantly for the Buccaneers, both of these teams have a tiebreaker edge over Tampa Bay due to head-to-head wins way back in September.  By Week 17, only one of these two teams may still have a shot at it, and you can bet the Buccaneers will be rooting for the other one.

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