A trip to Minnesota, Chicago or Detroit? A visit from the Redskins, Cowboys, Giants or Eagles?
All of those are still possibilities for the 2013 Buccaneers, even with the 2012 regular season holding just two more weeks of play.
Since the arrival of a 32nd team in the expansion Houston Texans and the subsequent NFL realignment into eight four-team divisions, the league has followed a scheduling format that deemphasizes the “strength-of-schedule” factor that used to figure prominently in the process. Now, 14 of a team’s 16 games each season are decided by a rotation of division-vs.-division matchups that is known years in advance. In addition to six games within its own division, each team plays all four teams of one of the other three divisions in its conferences and all four teams in one of the four divisions from the other conference.
Astute mathematicians will surely realize that adds up to 14 games, not 16. The remainder is the last vestige of strength-of-schedule considerations. To fill out the final two games on its annual schedule, each team plays one game against the opponents from the two in-conference divisions it is not matched up with that year. As an example, the NFC South was matched with the NFC East this year, meaning the Bucs played the Giants, Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins. For their two matchup games, they played the fourth-place teams from the NFC North and NFC West, as that was where Tampa Bay finished in the South in 2011. That proved to be a road trip to Minnesota in Week Eight and this week’s visit from the St. Louis Rams.
So what will that strength-of-schedule matching produce for the Buccaneers in 2013? It is seriously difficult to predict at this point.
That’s because the standings in the South, North and East have compressed towards the middle in recent weeks. For example, the Giants looked to be in charge in the East a few weeks ago, and now are in a three-way tie with the Redskins and Cowboys at 8-6, without the ability to control their own destiny. In the North, the Bears were the division leaders just a few weeks ago but are now tied for second with the Vikings and could be on the verge of falling completely out of the NFC playoff race. And even in the Bucs’ division, where it looked like Tampa Bay was headed to a second-place finish, last week’s game in New Orleans and a strong run by the Panthers has left that place up for grabs.
At this point, the Buccaneers could finish anywhere from second to fourth in the South. If they remain in second place, they are most likely to travel to either Chicago or Minnesota (again!) and get a visit from either the Giants or Cowboys. With the tiebreakers as they currently stand, the Bucs are actually in third place behind the Saints, and if the season ended today it would be that Viking-Cowboy combo.
Fourth place in the East and North divisions is already set, as that’s where the Eagles and Lions will stay regardless of what happens over the next two weeks. However, since the Buccaneers could technically still come in fourth behind the Panthers, who are one game back at 5-9, that means a trip to Detroit and another visit from the Eagles remains a possibility for 2013, as well.