Level with the Field

Shortly after Sunday’s one-point loss to the Falcons, Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano pointed to missed opportunities.  He was speaking solely about that afternoon’s game – the Bucs refuse to look any farther ahead than their current opponent – but the same thought could have been applied at that very moment to the NFC playoff race as a whole.  A couple more points on Sunday and the Bucs would have enjoyed almost the perfect weekend.

In fact, had Tampa Bay held on to its fourth-quarter lead over the Falcons and improved to 7-4 on the season, it would now be one of the six teams in the conference with a current hold on a playoff spot.  That’s because all the teams that were an immediate concern to the Buccaneers in the race for a Wild Card spot also suffered defeats in Week 12.

Dallas started it by losing to Washington on Thanksgiving Day. Then, on Sunday afternoon and evening, Seattle lost at Miami, Minnesota was rolled over by Chicago and New Orleans fell to San Francisco.  Even Green Bay, which was and is a game ahead of the Bucs, Seahawks and Vikings, took a loss on Sunday night against the New York Giants. The happiest team in all of this: the Washington Redskins, who improved to 5-6 and are now just a game behind the three teams tied for the sixth playoff spot.

However, while the Bucs definitely missed an opportunity to assert some sort of control over their playoff chances, one can also look at this from the flip side.  The weekend could have been a lot more painful for Tampa Bay.  Instead, the race essentially stood still.

In fact, there was virtually no change in the overall NFC standings through the top 10 teams, except that Washington got a small lift and the Bears separated from the Packers and took back first place in the NFC North.  The Seahawks still have a nominal hold on the sixth playoff spot, thanks to a tiebreaker (conference record) that could look quite a bit different by the end of the regular season.  The Bucs still have an edge over the 6-5 Vikings thanks to a head-to-head victory.  Dallas and New Orleans are still a game behind, with Washington now also in that group.

With five games left to play and the Falcons now holding a four-game lead in the division, the NFC South crown looks like a serious long shot.  No matter how well they take care of their own business down the stretch, the Buccaneers would need the 10-1 Falcons to go on a long and uncharacteristic losing streak.  However, the Wild Card race, despite Sunday’s loss, looks as promising as ever.

And, of course, the Buccaneers’ approach to the whole thing hasn’t changed one bit either.

“At this point we’re looking strictly at the next game; it’s a one game season,” said QB Josh Freeman. “We’re not looking at divisional opponents, (as) that’s something that will take care of itself down the road. We’re focusing on putting on the best performance we can against the team we have out against us.

“I think we’ll be just fine. I think guys will go in and go to work and continue to do their job. They’ll try to out prepare themselves. I think we have a very strong team. We hate to lose; it’s tough, but we have a great group of guys, great coaches, and we’re going to get prepared to take this team to Denver.”

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