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.)
Last week, we advised you to back two underdogs – Arizona at Atlanta and Detroit at home against Green Bay. And…oh, so close. Both the Cardinals and the Lions took teams ahead of the Bucs in the overall standings to the brink, but couldn’t hang on. Oh well, remember, we make a case for both sides of each game in “Who Do I Root For?” (should that be “Whom Do I Root For?”), so afterwards we can go back and find the silver linings. In this case, the Lions and Cardinals are now far less serious threats to pass the Bucs from behind, particularly in Detroit’s case after a painful Thanksgiving Day loss.
After Thursday’s Washington-at-Dallas game (a Cowboys loss that was definitely good for the Bucs, at least in the short run), there are six remaining contests on Sunday that feature two NFC teams. One is Bucs-Falcons and…well, you don’t need help with that one, right? Two of the other five are matchups of teams that are too far down the standings to be considered immediate threats: St. Louis at Arizona and Carolina at Philadelphia. The New Orleans at San Francisco game is too easy of a call – root for the 49ers to knock the Saints off the Bucs’ tail and just go ahead and win the NFC West.
That leaves a pair of games that have a somewhat connected rooting interest for Buccaneer fans. Let’s take a look:
1. Minnesota (6-4) at Chicago (7-3)
The Case for the Vikings: We told you to root for the Vikings two weeks ago against the Lions (and they won), and we’re going to ask you to stick with them for one more game, even though they are currently one of the teams tied with the Bucs for the last spot in the NFC field. You see, there’s a very good chance that the Bucs are going to be worrying about the Bears in the Wild Card race soon. Green Bay has caught Chicago at the top of the NFC North and the Packers are on a five-game winning streak, compared to a two-game losing streak for the Bears. Let’s take a guess here at that the Packers are going to roll on to the division title, and drop Chicago down to where the Bucs could catch them this week with a victory. Remember, the Bucs have a head-to-head tiebreaker in hand against the Vikings, so that’s a team we mainly just have to stay even with. Keep this in mind, too: The Vikes have by far the most brutal schedule down the stretch of the playoff contenders, so there will be plenty of opportunities for them to lose several more games.
The Case for the Bears: All this talk of not worrying about the Vikings sticking around in the playoff race is foolish. Tampa Bay needs to make sure it has a hold on one postseason spot before eyeing a higher seed, and the best way to do that is to remove all its closest competitors. The Bucs are tied with the Vikings right now for the #6 seed; we need to get them out of the way first and then start shooting for the next spot up. Besides, Green Bay and Chicago will be playing each other in a few weeks, so one of those teams is automatically going to get bumped down a game. Once we see which team is the front-runner for the North, then we’ll have a better idea who to root for.
The Verdict: Root for the Vikings. It comes down to Minnesota’s tough road ahead and the fact that the Buccaneers, if they are going to win enough games to stay in the race (and this whole argument is moot otherwise), have a good chance of staying at least even with the Vikings. That tiebreaker in hand thanks to a Week Seven win in Minnesota could end up being very powerful.
2. Green Bay (7-3) at N.Y. Giants (6-4)
The Case for the Packers: Washington’s win over Dallas on Thanksgiving and the Giants’ recent struggles have opened up a wonderful possibility for the Buccaneers: That the entire NFC East will sink into a wild struggle where the emerging champion has just 8 or 9 wins and everybody else from the division is out of the Wild Card race. The Giants are 6-4 heading into the weekend, but they’ve lost two in a row and if they drop a third straight against the Packers they’ll be just a game over .500 and a game ahead of both the ‘Skins and the ‘Boys (both 5-6). If the Bucs beat the Falcons while the Giants lose, they would actually be a game better than the NFC East leader and two better than the next team in the hunt. Given the fact that the Bucs have already lost to all three of those teams, it would behoove them stay ahead of all the East teams if they can. Meanwhile, given that we’re rooting for a Chicago loss in the game above under the idea that the Packers can then run away with that division, it doesn’t hurt the Bucs to have the Packers win.
The Case for the Giants: It doesn’t really matter that the Buccaneers lost to the Giants as long as they stay in the division lead and not in the Wild Card scrum. The Bucs would be two games up on Dallas and Washington with a win this weekend, and that’s enough of a cushion with five games left to believe they can stay out of a tiebreaker with those teams. Sure, it would be nice to knock the Giants down, too – in the long run, if the Bucs can catch Atlanta for the NFC South title, they’ll be then worried about seeding among the division winners – but it would be a bigger gain to pull the Packers back toward the, uh, pack by a game. Let’s not base our decisions on the guess that the Packers are going to pull away in the NFC North; rather, let’s root for all the teams ahead of the Bucs in the overall standings to lose, thereby increasing the number of teams we might be able to catch.
The Verdict: Root for the Packers. This one really is very close, and there will plenty of those silver linings for Tampa Bay if the Giants pull out of their slump. Still, the idea of an NFC East morass where only the division winner is in the playoff hunt is very compelling for a Bucs team that has tiebreaking problems with those squads. There are two more games between those three teams (plus a few that involve Philly), so there’s a very good chance of the whole division pulling itself down with a round-robin of wins.