Welcome to our new Captain’s Blog feature, wherein we try to sort out the more complicated NFC playoff implications of each weekend in the season’s stretch drive, so that you, the Tampa Bay fan and Sunday NFL viewer, can know exactly which outcomes are best for the Buccaneers.
(Or, potentially, you can complete disagree with our choices and tell us why in the comments below. That’s your right.)
The “Who Do I Root For?” conundrum has become considerably less complicated over the last five days. Atlanta has essentially wrapped up the NFC South with wins in Tampa on Sunday and at home over the Saints on Thursday night. Even if the Bucs win their remaining five games – and that is certainly quite possible – the Falcons would have to lose the next three before coming to Tampa in Week 17. That’s also possible, of course, but given the Falcons’ NFL-best 11-1 record, it’s not the most likely scenario.
Thus, the Buccaneers are almost certainly going to need to capture a Wild Card spot in order to join the Falcons in the postseason. And while the NFC field is still quite crowded, the teams of greatest concern to Tampa Bay in that race are Green Bay, Seattle, Minnesota, Washington and Dallas. Those five squads, plus the Bucs, all have records from 7-4 to 5-6 and are not currently division leaders. The 8-3 Bears and 7-4 Giants could become more pressing concerns if they are caught for their division leads by the Packers in the North or the Redskins or Cowboys in the East. The Falcons win on Thursday also pushed the Saints to the brink of extinction in the race, so…uh, thanks Atlanta? That’s not an easy thing to say.
Among that group of five teams, Dallas hosts Philadelphia on Sunday night while the Redskins welcome the Giants to town on Monday night. Those are easy to call, as losses by the Cowboys and ‘Skins help the Buccaneers without any real side effects. That leaves only two games on the schedule that we can realistically make an argument for on both sides. Let’s take a look:
1. Minnesota (6-5) at Green Bay (7-4)
The Case for the Vikings: You’ve heard us say it before, and we’ll say it again this week: We need Minnesota to lose, but not just yet. The Buccaneers, Vikings and Seahawks are all tied for the sixth best record in the NFC right now at 6-5, so at some point it would be good to pull away from those two teams. The thing is, the Buccaneers have a solid tiebreaker edge over Minnesota thanks to a head-to-head victory in Week Seven. That means, if it was just the Bucs and Vikings tied for the last spot at the end, Tampa Bay would be end. That makes Minnesota a little bit less of a threat to the Bucs than Seattle, or even the 5-6 Cowboys and Redskins, both of whom have already beaten Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the #5 seed is not at all out of reach, with Green Bay just a game ahead of the 6-5 teams. The Bucs could conceivably finish this weekend tied for that #5 seed, tough the Packers would still have a tiebreaker edge at the moment thanks to a better conference record.
The Case for the Packers: There isn’t too much practical difference between a #5 and a #6 seed at this point. It probably means the difference between going to Chicago/Green Bay or New York in the Wild Card round, and it’s not clear at the moment which would be a tougher draw. It is thus much more important to concentrate on getting a spot, any spot, in the playoffs rather than improving one’s draw. We’re getting down to the wire now, and the only real consideration is knocking one team after another out of the race. Push the Vikings down one more spot, and with their brutal schedule ahead you can almost stop worrying about them.
The Verdict: Root for the Vikings. Eventually, somebody out there is going to accuse us of being Vikings fans. We keep telling you to root for them week after week. That will have to stop at some point, but for now it’s safe to keep them in the picture and in the process reel back the only team a game ahead of the Bucs in the current Wild Card picture.
2. Seattle (6-5) at Chicago (8-3)
The Case for the Bears: Seattle is perhaps the Buccaneers’ main concern at this point. With the Vikings, Cowboys and Redskins, all Tampa Bay has to do is win at least as many games as them, and it won’t be overtaken in the Wild Card race. Seattle, however, can stay ahead of the Bucs simply by matching them. The problem is Seattle’s record against NFC teams (4-4), which is currently one better than that of the Buccaneers (3-5). Tampa Bay could conceivably make up that difference while still finishing the season tied with Seattle, for example if the Bucs’ only loss down the stretch was to Denver while Seattle loses to Chciago, Arizona, San Francisco or St. Louis. But that tiebreaker situation is still scary, so the Bucs would feel considerably more comfortable if the Seahawks got knocked a game behind. The two teams won’t play each other, so there is no opportunity to earn a head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Case for the Seahawks: Well, while a Seattle loss would be nice, Chicago is still within reach and could end up as a Wild Card team if the Packers get hot. Chicago and Green Bay play each other in Week 15, so the two could switch places rather easily, and then the Bucs would be chasing the Bears for that #5 seed. A Chicago loss plus a Buc win this week would close the gap between them to just one game.
The Verdict: Root for the Bears. Yeah, that was sort of a half-hearted effort on the Seahawk side of things. The potential gain of a Seahawk loss is far more important than long range considerations about the #5 seed.