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No, really: How the Bucs (4-8) can still make the playoffs

By Greg Auman
Published: December 6, 2017 Updated: December 6, 2017 at 05:32 PM
They need all sorts of help -- seriously, a lot -- but it's mathematically possible the Bucs and QB Jameis Winston play the Saints in Week 17 with a shot at the playoffs.(LOREN ELLIOTT | TIMES)

First, a couple of things. We're not trying to mock the Bucs in doing this. And we're not trying to give any fans false hope. Much as was the case in Week 17 last year, there is the tiniest imaginable possibility that the Bucs could still make the playoffs.

They don't even need a tie this time.

So we're laying out the Bucs' extremely unlikely path to the postseason, just to show that it still exists. It obviously starts with the Bucs winning their remaining four games — at home against the Lions, then sweeping three division rivals who have all already beaten the Bucs this season.

This in itself is very unlikely. If you're optimistic and give the Bucs a 40 percent chance at each win, the odds of just getting those four in a row are 2.56 percent. They also need at least 14 other outcomes to go their way.

The Bucs can't catch any team with nine or more wins, so they might as well concede the Eagles, Rams, Vikings and Saints as division winners. Then they must catch two out of the Seahawks (8-4), Panthers (8-4) and Falcons (7-5). If Seattle or Carolina wins a single game, they're in ahead of the Bucs, who can only get to 8-8. So one of those two must go 0-4 for the Bucs to get in.

What complicates things is if Carolina goes 0-4, one of those losses is to the Falcons, who then also have eight wins. What helps the Bucs is they can still win tiebreakers at 8-8 with all three of those teams.

For simplicity's sake, let's put Seattle in as the first NFC wild card. Carolina has the Vikings, Packers and Falcons, so it's not insane they could go 0-3, and the Bucs get the tiebreaker on a better division record. The Falcons then simply need to get swept by the Saints, and Bucs get the tiebreaker, again on better division record.

The Bucs need the Lions, Packers and Cowboys — all 6-6 — to lose at least two each — and for specific tiebreaker reasons in this particular scenario, they need the Lions to lose to the Bears but beat the Bengals. They need the Redskins and Cardinals, both 5-7, to lose at least one.

If all those things happen — 18 results in all — the Bucs are in the playoffs at 8-8 as a wild card. Congrats. There's some flexibility — the Cowboys, for instance, can lose to either the Giants or Raiders and it doesn't change the Bucs' outcome. And yes, there are more complicated ways to get in.

Here's one set of weekly outcomes that would put the Bucs in the playoffs:

Week 14: Bucs beat Lions, Saints beat Falcons, Vikings beat Panthers.

Week 15: Bucs beat Falcons, Raiders beat Cowboys, Cardinals beat Redskins, Packers beat Panthers, Bears beat Lions.

Week 16: Bucs beat Panthers, Vikings beat Packers, Saints beat Falcons, Seahawks beat Cowboys, Lions beat Bengals.

Week 17: Bucs beat Saints, Falcons beat Panthers, Lions beat Packers, Eagles beat Cowboys, Seahawks beat Cardinals.

You can verify the unlikely outcome using the New York Times' outstanding playoff simulator feature. Good luck.