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.)
In Week 10, the games that have are attention are Detroit at Minnesota and, of course, Atlanta at New Orleans. Let’s get right to it.
1. Detroit (4-4) at Minnesota (5-4)
The Case for the Lions: Obviously, Minnesota has the better record and is a half-game up on the Buccaneers in the current NFC playoff standings. If the Bucs beat the Chargers and the Vikings lose to the Lions, Tampa Bay will leapfrog Minnesota and have only Seattle (also 5-4) potentially between them and the last playoff spot. The Vikings are also heading into their very favorably-scheduled bye week after this game, so it would be good if they didn’t take any momentum into that break, after which they have to face the first-place Bears. The Lions have an absolutely brutal schedule down the stretch: Green Bay (twice), Houston, Atlanta and Chicago are all on the horizon. So even if Detroit gets a little life in the playoff hunt with a win this weekend, they’ll have a tough team holding onto it.
The Case for the Vikings: A loss for the Vikings would be tough but it would be potentially devastating for the Lions, given that aforementioned schedule coming up. The Bucs would prefer it if the playoff race not get too crowded, and they would be better off pushing the Lions farther out of the picture and worrying about reeling in the Vikings later. After all, as bad as the Lions’ upcoming schedule is, the Vikings’ stretch run might be even worse: Green Bay AND Chicago twice each, as well as Houston in Week 16. And don’t forget this: The Bucs have already defeated Minnesota, so they might only have to catch the Vikings, not pass them, in order to beat them out for a playoff spot. Finally, the Lions seem like a dangerous team on paper if the Matt Stafford-Calvin Johnson offense can begin producing more along the likes of what it did in 2011.
The Verdict: Root for the Vikings. Worry about catching Minnesota later, but right now make things tough on the Lions in case they do get hot down the stretch.
2. Atlanta (8-0) at New Orleans (3-5)
The Case for the Falcons: With a four-game lead and eight weeks to go, it will be tough for the Falcons to lose their grip on the NFC South. In addition, Atlanta looks like a very good bet to win one of the top two conference seeds and a first-round bye, so it really many not matter if they win 13, 14 or 15 games. While it’s difficult for a Buccaneer fan to cheer on the Falcons, in this case a win for Atlanta wouldn’t change the division race much but could be a death knell for the Saints. Even though much of their season has been a struggle, the Saints have won three of their last four and seem to be getting back into their comfort zone on offense. At 4-5, New Orleans would be one game behind the Buccaneers at the worst, and that would be uncomfortable for Tampa Bay, which has already lost one game to the Saints. Better to put Drew Brees and company down the list at 3-6 and see if that last bit of adversity takes the life out of their playoff race.
The Case for the Saints: We’re sorry, but there’s no way the Buccaneers should be giving up on the NFC South crown and rooting for the Falcons. Four games in eight weeks is a lot to make up, but remember that the Buccaneers and Falcons still have to play each other twice. Atlanta has won six of their last seven against Tampa Bay, but the games have almost always been extremely competitive, even in the Georgia Dome. If the Bucs can get the sweep – and they are obviously playing better football over the last month – that would mean only two other games they would have to make up in the other six weeks. If New Orleans can beat them this weekend, that would seem to indicate that they can beat them again in Week 13, and the Falcons also have to face the Giants and a potentially tough Lions team on the road. And…it’s the Falcons. Come on. You can’t root for the Falcons.
The Verdict: Root for New Orleans. Yes, winning the division is a serious challenge, but it’s just a bit too early to give up on it, especially with two games against Atlanta remaining. The Saints will get stronger, but Tampa Bay has one more shot to push them down, too, and they have played well in the Superdome in recent seasons.