Point/Counterpoint: Do the Bucs Need to Run the Table?

Alright, Scott, Point/Counterpoint number two. Let’s go.

We’re rolling along into Week 14. Four games remain in the regular season and teams are jockeying for their positions in the postseason. The Atlanta Falcons, with their win last Thursday night, locked up the NFC South and from here forward are playing for an opening week bye and home-field advantage. The Buccaneers’ playoff hopes come down to the two Wild Card spots.

The Bucs currently sit at number nine in the NFC Playoff race. The Buccaneers have a 6-6 record along with the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys and Redskins have each have a head-to-head victory, ranking them higher than the Bucs. Sitting in the six seed with a potential Wild Card berth are the Seattle Seahawks with a 7-5 record.

In the spirit of debate, we at the Captain’s Blog have decided to tackle the tough issues, debating topics in our newest weekly article: Point/Counterpoint. Feel free to share your own opinion on the matter in the comments blow or let us know what topics you’d like to see debated in a future blog post.

Without further ado, today’s topic: To win a Wild Card spot in the Playoffs, will the Buccaneers need to win out?

Take it away, Scott.

Scott Smith: Do we NEED to win all four?  The argument is pointless because we ARE going to win all four!  Yeah!  Mark it down!  As the Counting Crows would say, it’s going to be a “Long December” for Buccaneer opponents.

/stops shameless pandering to Buc fans in hopes of winning the debate

//regrets what casual reference to terrible ‘90s band will say about my musical taste

Sorry, still feeling the effects of the thin air in Denver.  They say it takes a while to recover.  I’m not worried, though.  After last week’s debate, I think you’ve got more ground to make up than Hannibal before he thought of using elephants.  I could phone this one in, but I’m not going to do that.

Listen, there’s no doubt that running the table represents the Bucs’ best chance of making the playoffs.  And, just us obviously, Tampa Bay could hypothetically make it in with something like an 8-8 record if all the other contenders suddenly collapsed.  But the gist of this debate, if I’m not mistaken, is whether or not the 2012 Buccaneers could realistically find themselves in the playoffs with a 9-7 record.  And I don’t think I’m being naively optimistic when I say, “Yes.  Yes, they can.”

Clearly the whole thing boils down to one problem: The Seattle Seahawks.  The Seahawks are 7-5 and, in the ridiculously crowded NFC field, the Bucs are one of four other teams at 6-6.  Two of those other three teams, Dallas and Washington, hold a head-to-head tiebreaker anvil over the Bucs’ heads, while the third, Minnesota, is a far lesser concern thanks to Tampa Bay’s win in the Metrodome in Week Seven.

At the very least, the Bucs have to win one more game than Seattle.  If the Seahawks were to win three of their last four, than my argument would be shot; Tampa Bay couldn’t get in without a December sweep.  Worse news (and I hope I’m preemptively stealing some of your thunder): Seattle has three of its final four games at home, where it has been very good this year.  HOWEVER, after what looks like a fairly easy home game this weekend against the quarterback-challenged Cardinals, Seattle must travel to Buffalo and then play both St. Louis and San Francisco.  I may be crazy, but I can easily see two losses in those three games, especially with the Rams looking a lot friskier of late.  If I’m right, the Seahawks are 9-7 at best.  If two of those proposed Seahawk losses are to NFC teams, then both the Bucs and Seattle will finish with 6-6 conference records, and that’s the first tiebreaker between them.

Dallas and Washington obviously complicate this whole matter hugely, and I’m sure the Redskins are going to be the media darlings after their recent run.  But look who they have left: Baltimore, at a Cleveland team that has played quite well of late, at Philly and against the Cowboys.  You’re telling me three wins are guaranteed there?  And Dallas?  Somebody told me their remaining schedule was easy.  Huh?  This is it: at Cincy, one of the league’s hottest teams; vs. Pittsburgh, with Big Ben coming back; vs. Drew Brees and the Saints; and at Washington.  Before you say it, I know: I can’t count that Week 17 game between Dallas and Washington as likely losses for both teams.  Still, if either Dallas or Washington was the last thing standing between the 9-7 Bucs and a playoff spot, would you be surprised if the already-eliminated team wiped out the other one and cleared the path for Tampa Bay?

By the way, the Buccaneers’ losses to Dallas and Washington could end up being irrelevant if there is a three-way tie with some combination of teams at the end.  It could come down to “record in common games” or even “strength of victory,” and, to be frank, there’s no way I’m trying to figure all of that out in Week 14.

Too much of this “Bucs have to win out” idea is based on the pessimistic assumption that Tampa Bay’s fellow contenders are going to roll through the month of December with ease.  I don’t think so.  Check back in two weeks and there might be a whole new team in the NFC driving seat.

Andrew Norton: I see the points that you are trying to make, Scott, but “Mr. Jones” and me are saying that for the Buccaneers to make the Playoffs, we need to run the table.

As you stated in your argument, the whole thing boils down to the Seahawks.

At this point in the season, every NFL team has played at least five home games. Of the 32 teams, two of them remain undefeated at home: the 11-1 Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks. It is, no doubt, a difficult home schedule that includes the NFC West division-leading 49ers and the resurgent St. Louis Rams. But at home, the Seahawks have already beaten the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots; all teams that I am more scared of facing than any of their remaining opponents.

On top of this, the Seahawks also have an edge for the tie-breaker. Since the teams have not faced each other, the next step is conference record. The Buccaneers currently sit at 3-5, the Seahawks hold a 5-4 record. If the Buccaneers can win all four of their remaining games, they end the year with a 7-5 conference standing which is obsolete if Seattle wins their remaining NFC games (which are all at home). Should they drop one of those games, they would again be even and the tie-breaker would be common opponents. Fun fact: currently that is also tied! Which makes way to strength of victory, where the edge goes back to Seattle.

Basically, that is just a long, drawn-out way of saying that if the Buccaneers win out, and the Seahawks go 3-1 losing to an NFC opponent, the Buccaneers still may not make the playoffs.

So that is glaring reason number one that the Buccaneers must go 4-0. And that is not even touching the fact that the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins are tied with us at 6-6 and both own the tiebreaker. The Buccaneers remaining opponent record is 24-23-1; the Cowboys, 25-23; the Redskins, 22-26.

Of course, four weeks left is a lot of time. We could spend the rest of the week bantering about this and still not touch all of the variables. No talks about how the NFC West and East are still both highly up for grabs. No talks about how the Bears are on a bit of a recent skid. No talk about how, mathematically, even the 3-9 Eagles and Panthers are not eliminated from playoff contention.

My final point is this. For the Bucs to make the Playoffs, they will need to go 4-0. Because I simply do not see both the Redskins and Cowboys going 2-2 or the Seahawks dropping more than remaining game.

Scott Smith: Nice analysis, Debbie Downer.  Your final point is where I’ll start my rebuttal, because I think that point is overly pessimistic in two ways.

1. Your belief that the Seahawks, Cowboys and Redskins couldn’t possibly lose twice is based on how you feel about them right now, but this season (and all seasons, really, if you study them closely enough) has shown us that teams can go from hot to cold, or vice versa, really rapidly.  Three weeks ago, after Washington had lost to the Giants, Steelers and, gulp, Panthers to drop to 3-6, could you have imagined them then blasting through Philly, Dallas and the Giants in rapid succession?  I have a friend who’s a huge Cowboys fan (really, he’s otherwise a good dude) and his mood swings this fall have been epic.  And that whole “Seattle can’t lose at home thing” would look a lot different without replacement refs and an unexpected fourth-down catch by Braylon Edwards, of all people, against New England.  My point is, stop assuming that what seem like sure victories to you right now are going to feel the same way to you two weeks from now.  Let’s say you’re the Bucs’ coach (laughable, I know, but play along) and we somehow lose two weeks from now in New Orleans.  Are you going to go into the locker room and tell the team, ‘Hey, guys, we’re mathematically still alive in the playoffs but, c’mon, we all know we had to win this one to have a chance, right?’

2. You touched on something near the end there that is important.  There are other teams that could skid into the fray from above, and that could open new possibilities. Maybe the Bucs don’t beat out the Seahawks in a tiebreaker, but both teams make it in.  Let me put it to you this way: I just messed around with the insanely cool “Playoff Machine” on ESPN.com, and it took me about two seconds to get the Bucs into the playoffs at 9-7.  All I did was set the remainder of the schedule to all home teams winning and then changed three outcomes: Baltimore wins at Washington this weekend, Green Bay wins at Chicago in Week 15 and the Bucs win at New Orleans in Week 15.  Warning: Do not start messing around with that Playoff Machine if you hope to have any productivity at the office today.

Finally, let me regale you with a tale from the long-ago age of 2007, an innocent time when gas was only $3.18 a gallon and a jug of milk was just $3.35.  After three quarters of that NFL season, Washington was 5-7, Minnesota was 6-6 (and would get to 8-6), Detroit was 6-6 and Arizona was 6-6.  There were also three other 5-7 teams.  The Redskins had lost five of their last six, only beating the woeful Jets in overtime.  Their conference record was a scary 3-6, while Minnesota’s was 4-5. The Redskins still had to face Minnesota and the Giants on the road and would finish with a 13-2 Cowboys team.  You know who made the playoffs out of that group?  Yeah, Washington.  It’s just too early, with a quarter of the season left, to write off any possible scenario.

Andrew Norton: Well, let’s not go spreading any rumors that I’m rooting against the Buccaneers here. There is no need to label my realism as pessimism. But with three teams in direct contention with the Buccaneers for that Wild Card spot (and this is not mentioning the Bears, Packers, Giants and Saints who can certainly mess things up further), finishing 3-1 in the hopes that all three teams end with a record at .500 or below is a stretch.

According to Sports Club Stats, as it stands right now, there is a 20.8% chance that the Buccaneers make the playoffs. And while it is no guarantee that we will even make the playoffs by winning out, the odds increase to 72.0% if we do. If we go just 3-1, that number sinks to 17.8%.

That is a pretty solid statistic based entirely on probability, ignoring the fact that anything can happen in any given week. A lot of things need to go right for the Buccaneers to make their way to the playoffs, but most of it is their own victories. They don’t hold their own destiny, but, at 72%, that is pretty close. And, as pointed out by you, crazier things have happened.

I will however end optimistically. There are four weeks left. Standings will shift, favorites will be upset and the Bucs winning out is certainly quite possible. I guess you could say there’s reason to believe: maybe this year will be better than the last.

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