Only Tiebreaker Standing Between Bucs and Playoff Field

Well, that was almost great.

As a Buccaneers fan, it’s hard to get too down about an unbelievable run of comebacks by favored teams on Sunday, since Tampa Bay’s own 27-21 win in Carolina was probably the most improbable of all those rallies.  Still, but for some late-game heroics in such outposts as Dallas, Atlanta and Detroit (by the visiting team), it could have been a really useful week for the Bucs’ playoff hopes.

Last Friday, as we headed into weekend, we suggested who you should root for in a couple of key NFC matchups in Week 11.  Specifically, we came down on the side of the Lions over the Packers and the Cardinals over the Falcons.  In both cases, wins by the favored teams (Green Bay and Atlanta) would help thin out the field behind the Buccaneers, but we thought it was still early enough to be more focused on catching the teams in front of them.

Alas, our wishes were thwarted when Atlanta overcame five interceptions to rally for a 23-19 home win over Arizona and the Packers pulled out a 24-20 decision in Detroit.  The Falcons maintained their three-game lead over the Buccaneers in the NFC South and the Packers held on to the first Wild Card spot, one game better than Tampa Bay.

Still, the Bucs made some gains, in part because two of their top Wild Card competitors were idle.  With Seattle and Minnesota both sitting on their 6-4 records, Tampa Bay was able to tie them for what is essentially the sixth seed in the NFC field.  Tiebreakers are somewhat meaningless at this point, because the season isn’t “ending today,” as we’re so fond of saying, but if you’re going to rank the teams at this point, you have to employ the anyway.  As such, Seattle is still in the top six in the NFC, according to this the updated playoff picture here on NFL.com, but the Bucs have passed Minnesota and have plenty of time to either pass the Seahawks  or improve their tiebreaker numbers.

There is still one very significant NFC game still to go in Week 11, as the 7-2 Chicago Bears take on the 6-2-1 San Francisco 49ers.  The result won’t immediately affect the Bucs’ playoff standings, but it will make either the NFC North or the NFC West race a lot more interesting for the loser.  You can check but here is quick look at the overall conference standings, as suggested by NFL.com:

1. Atlanta (9-1)…NFC South leader, first-round bye

2. Chicago (7-2)…NFC North leader, first-round bye

3. San Francisco (6-2-1)…NFC West leader, would host a Wild Card Game

4. N.Y. Giants (6-4)…NFC East leader, would host a Wild Card Game

5. Green Bay (7-3)…Wild Card #1, would play at Seed #4

6. Seattle (6-4)…Wild Card #2, would play at Seed #3

7. Tampa Bay (6-4)

8. Minnesota (6-4)

9. New Orleans (5-5)

10. Dallas (5-5)

Curiously, you get a slightly different picture if you refer to the standings on ESPN.com.  ESPN has Minnesota slotted sixth, followed by Seattle and Tampa Bay.  ESPN seems to be strictly applying the first tiebreaker that would come into play if three teams from different divisions were tied for a Wild Card spot.  That’s the correct approach, according to the tiebreaker rules linked off NFL.com’s own playoff picture page.  Since the Bucs and Seahawks haven’t played, and won’t, there is no chance for a head-to-head sweep among the three teams, so you go to the next tiebreaker, which is conference record.  Minnesota, at 4-3, is tops in that category, compared to Seattle’s 4-4 and the Bucs’ 3-4.

Presumably, NFL.com is currently listing Seattle first and Tampa Bay second because both of those teams have already beaten Minnesota.  Perhaps that’s a nod to the fact that a tiebreaker such as conference record is necessarily not complete until the season is over, and thus hard to apply at this point.

Either way, there’s a lot of playoff jockeying left to go.  Wins by Dallas (a big comeback at home against Cleveland) and New Orleans (with relative ease in Oakland) kept those two teams breathing down Tampa Bay’s neck.  The Bucs’ most important consideration right now, however: The 9-1 Falcons, who are coming to town Sunday and could leave with just a two-game division lead.

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