Welcome to our newest 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.)
Here at “Who Do I Root For?” Enterprises, we feel like we should explain something about the methods we use to make our weekly picks, because it probably wasn’t clear enough in previous weeks.
See, when we suggest which teams to root for in other games that have a two-sided bearing on the NFC playoff race, we are doing so under the assumption that the Buccaneers are also going to win that week. That can make a big difference.
For instance, we were watching the Minnesota-Green Bay game last week before the Bucs kicked off in Denver, and it was admittedly tough to remember which side we should be on. We had suggested rooting for Minnesota last Friday, thinking that a Buccaneer win plus a Packers loss could put Tampa Bay as high as tied for the fifth seed by the time the weekend was over. However, given that the Bucs were unable to pull out a win against the Broncos, it was probably better in retrospect that the Vikings did lose. If they had won, the Bucs would now be chasing two 7-5 teams, instead of one.
Obviously, the Bucs’ loss changed our way of thinking, and that will be reflected in this week’s selections. However, we’re still going to go into each weekend expecting a Tampa Bay win and planning our rooting strategies accordingly.
For the second straight week, however, there aren’t too many question marks. You should obviously root for any NFC team playing an AFC team to lose, so that takes Dallas, Washington, St. Louis and San Francisco out of the equation. The Atlanta-Carolina game is not particularly important; we suppose you could root for the Falcons, if you can stomach it, so that they get closer to clinching home field advantage and thus might choose to rest some players in the final week. The Arizona-Seattle game is an easy call: GO CARDINALS! Same thing with Detroit at Green Bay; the Lions at 4-8 are not really a threat, so let’s try to reel those Packers in a bit.
That leaves only two possible question marks on the board. Let’s take a look:
1. Chicago (8-4) at Minnesota (6-6)
The Case for the Bears: Alright, enough rooting for the Vikings every week (it hasn’t really helped, anyway). It’s time to knock them out of the picture, and who really cares if it’s the Bears or the Packers that go on to win the NFC North. This is straightforward: A Minnesota loss coupled with a Buccaneer win would essentially put Tampa Bay two games up on the Vikings with three to play. That’s because Tampa Bay holds a head-to-head tiebreaker with Minnesota, as we point out every week. If the Vikings lose this week, the best they can finish is 9-7, and it’s hard to imagine the Bucs having fewer than nine wins and still getting in. Let’s just eliminate one of the contenders (practically speaking) now and hope the rest of the puzzle falls into place.
The Case for the Vikings: Nope, sorry, it’s not quite time to turn in our Vikings fan card yet. Let’s stick with it for one more week because, actually, the Bears’ fortunes over the next month could actually become quite important to the Buccaneers. Note that Chicago has lost three of its last four games while dealing with some significant injuries. (The one game they did win, unfortunately, was against Minnesota, so this won’t necessarily be easy.) If the Bears could go into a full-blown skid, that might give the Buccaneers another potential avenue into the playoffs besides passing Seattle, which won’t be easy. In fact, in the most recent Point/Counterpoint entry here in the CB, we fiddled around with the “Playoff Machine” on ESPN and came up with that exact scenario rather easily.
The Verdict: Root for the Vikings. Sorry if we sound like a broken record, but once again the bigger picture has us hoping Minnesota can give the Bucs some help now and then drop off during their difficult final three weeks (at St. Louis, at Houston, vs. Green Bay). Since the schedule seems to favor Seattle, which plays three of its last four at home, there is reason to worry the Bucs won’t be able to catch the Seahawks, no matter how well they take care of their own business. Pulling another team from above down into the picture could open up some other important options.
2. New Orleans (5-7) at N.Y. Giants (7-5)
The Case for the Saints: Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Giants have the NFC East wrapped up. After losing three of their last four, they are now just one ahead of both Washington and Dallas, and the Redskins are one of the hotter teams in the league. The Giants have a tough road in the next three weeks, with an unpredictable but dangerous Saints team at home and then road games at Atlanta and Baltimore. The Bucs have a tiebreaker issue with all three of the NFC East contenders, having lost to them all head-to-head, but it’s quite plausible that they could simply pass the Giants in the standings. In fact, they could tie them this week, as could the Redskins and Cowboys. Dallas and Washington play each other in Week 17, so if the Bucs can match those two teams before that, they will only have to worry about one of those two at the end. If the Giants also fell behind, then suddenly you have a Redskins/Cowboys winner in the East, Seattle as the first Wild Card favorite and a much more favorable path to the #6 seed.
The Case for the Giants: Let’s not get too crazy here. We got what we wanted the last two weeks when the suddenly scary Saints took a pair of losses to fall to 5-7 and almost out of the playoff picture. If we let them back in, then the Buccaneers’ own game in New Orleans next weekend could literally be a fight for both teams to hold on to their playoff lives. If the Saints lose again and fall to 5-8, one would expect they would also lose a good deal of their fight for that Week 15 game in the Superdome. The last thing the Buccaneers need is another contender in the crowded race for what is probably one playoff spot.
The Verdict: Root for the Saints. This one is tough. The Saints really could become a problem with a win, but here is another case in which we have to live in our hopes and not in our fears. We have to assume the Buccaneers are going to win at least three if not all four of their reamining games in order to stay realistically in the race, so the better approach is to root for all the vulnerable teams above them to drop. It really is almost the exact same reason we’re coming down on the side of the Vikings against the Bears.