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.)
We launched this feature last week, when the NFL schedule was jammed with games that had two-team NFC playoff implications. This week, not so much. Playoff contenders Dallas and New Orleans (and to a somewhat lesser extent, St. Louis) are all playing AFC teams, so it’s obvious who to root for in those contests. Philly and Washington are both 3-6, so it’s hard to stir up much concern about that matchup, and the Chicago-San Fran game is a battle of two division leaders, which is only remotely related to the Bucs’ postseason situation.
Still, there are two matchups in Week 11 that are of more interest to the Buccaneers: Arizona at Atlanta and Green Bay and Detroit. Let’s take a look:
1. Arizona (4-5) at Atlanta (8-1)
The Case for the Cardinals: Arizona is only one game behind the Buccaneers in the standings, but it’s hard to stir up too much concern for a team that has struggled mightily on offense all year and has an absolutely brutal schedule down the stretch (at Atlanta, at Seattle, vs. Chicago and at San Francisco among the seven games). Meanwhile, the Falcons finally lost a game last weekend, to New Orleans (we told you to root for the Saints!), and the rest of the NFC South has to hope that it was a beginning of a slide back to the pack for the division leader. Not only would a loss by the Falcons potentially pull the Bucs within two games, should Tampa Bay win at Carolina, but it might expose some cracks in Atlanta’s armor. With two games left against Atlanta, the Bucs have to root for an opportunity to pull within two in the standings.
The Case for the Falcons: Things are getting a little too crowded in the NFC Wild Card hunt. The Bucs still have to catch either Green Bay (6-3) or Seattle (6-4), and Minnesota (6-4) is sitting in the way, too. After that, Tampa Bay is the only NFC team over .500, but Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans and Arizona are all lurking just one game behind. The Bucs have a tough conference record right now (2-4), so the fewer teams in a potential tiebreaker situation, the better. Obviously, trying to catch the Falcons is important, but the Bucs have their own two head-to-head games in hand so only technically need outside help in one of Atlanta’s other five weeks. This is not the best week for Atlanta to get that extra loss.
The Verdict: Root for the Cardinals. We went against the Falcons last week when their lead in the division was even stronger, and this is not the time to change course. You can’t get a home playoff game or a bye without winning your division, so that has to remain the Bucs’ top priority until it is out of reach. Let the Cardinals stay within striking distance and hope they get knocked back in the coming weeks by a bunch of strong opponents.
2. Green Bay (6-3) at Detroit (4-5)
The Case for the Packers: Green Bay is a game ahead of Tampa Bay in the Wild Card race (and, obviously, is still trying to win the rugged NFC North), and the Packers have a two-game edge over the Bucs in the conference-record tiebreaker. The Bucs may need to win a Wild Card spot if they can’t catch the Falcons, but they don’t have to win the FIRST Wild Card spot. Right now, that would mean the difference between starting the playoffs at New York or San Francisco; you tell us the best option there. It would be nice to catch the Packers this week, but it would be more helpful to bump Detroit a little farther out of the race (we told you to root for Minnesota to beat the Lions last week, and we’re glad they were able to do it). This crowded NFC field we referenced needs to start thinning out; a Detroit loss would be a big step in that direction.
The Case for the Lions: Much like in our selection of Arizona over Atlanta, we’re going to live in our hopes and not our fears (to borrow an old Jon Gruden trope). Sure, it would be nice to knock the Lions down a notch, but the Bucs are already ahead of Detroit. We’ve passed them, so let’s set our sights on one of the next teams in front of us. It only takes a Green Bay loss and a Bucs win this weekend to pull into a tie with the Packers, and even though the tiebreaker doesn’t look good right now, there are still six weeks to play. Simply put, if the NFC playoff race is going to remain this crowded, the Bucs need to start climbing to the top of the list as soon as possible. Besides, Detroit’s conference record isn’t nearly as good as Green Bay’s, so that potential tiebreaker with a contending Lions team doesn’t look as scary.
The Verdict: Root for the Lions. As long as the Buccaneers keep winning, they’re going to find themselves separating from the NFC pack of fringe contenders. The key is to reel in those teams currently in front of them, and the Packers certainly qualify.