Breaking down the Bucs' playoff picture
NFL playoff scenarios can be complicated -- a combination of a win by this team and a loss or tie by that team and so on -- but with three weeks left in the regular season, the Bucs' paths to the playoffs can be distilled to a few possibilities that can play out between now and Jan 1.
-- First, and most simply, the Bucs make the playoffs if they win out. This won't be easy, especially Sunday at Dallas, but if the Bucs finish 11-5, they know they're in the playoffs, and if the Falcons lose any of their last three, the Bucs would be division champs and hosting a playoff game for the first time in eight years.
-- As it relates to winning the NFC South, a loss to Dallas this weekend doesn't hurt the Bucs. This seems odd, but it's true: Even at 8-6, with the Falcons 9-5 after an Atlanta win against the 49ers, it lays out the same for the Bucs. If Tampa Bay can win one more game in the final two weeks than Atlanta, they win the division.
How? As it stands, Atlanta has the tiebreaker edge on the Bucs, but if the Falcons lose to the Saints or Panthers and the Bucs finish with wins against the same two teams, the Bucs finish 5-1 in division and the Falcons finish 4-2, so the Bucs are division champs if they have the same record as Atlanta. It's less likely, but if the Falcons lose both of their last two games and the Bucs even split their final two, the Bucs at 9-7 would still be division champs.
So you'll read a lot about how the Falcons have an edge on the Bucs because their remaining schedule is easier -- the Bucs face the 11-2 Cowboys this week, the Falcons face the 1-12 49ers -- this has no bearing on the division. Both teams play the Saints and Panthers, both teams have Week 16 on the road and Week 17 at home, so it's a nearly identical two-game sprint. The Falcons need only match the Bucs in those two games to win the division, and the Bucs need to get one more win in those two games to win.
If both teams win out, the Falcons win the division and the Bucs get the wild card, and it's even possible they play each other in the opening round of the playoffs.
The New York Times' outstanding Playoff Simulator presents it like this: if the Bucs lose Sunday but win their final two games, they make the playoffs in 96 percent of scenarios, and they win the division in 73 percent of scenarios. They even get a first-round bye in 5 percent, even with the loss to Dallas.
-- As it relates to the wild card, obviously the Bucs need every win they can get. Lose Sunday and the NYT simulations drop the Bucs from being in the playoffs 56 percent of scenarios to just 39 percent, but again, a single win in the final two games lifts that to at least 61 percent of scenarios.
The Redskins are the one team that won't likely be involved in a tiebreaker with the Bucs, because they're 7-5-1, so that tie puts them above or below the line everybody else is likely to be tied at. Washington still has the Panthers and Giants, but the Bucs need to match their record in the last three to stay ahead of them.
The biggest impact on the NFC wild card picture is the NFC North, where Detroit is 9-4 but has a nasty finish -- at Giants, at Cowboys, vs. Packers -- where they could easily go 1-2 or even 0-3, bringing them back into the wild card picture. If the Packers can pick up one game on Detroit in the next two weeks, they can win the division by simply winning at home against the Lions in Week 17. The Vikings are 7-6, but fading fast, having lost six of eight, and they need to win in Green Bay in Week 16 to stay in the hunt.
The tiebreakers for a wild card are dizzying -- it starts with head-to-head outcomes, but the Bucs haven't played any of the teams they're likely to be tied with, so that's moot. Next is conference record -- presuming the Bucs finish 2-1, they'll be at 8-4. The Vikings can't be better than 6-6, so Bucs fans want them to be in a tiebreaker. If the Packers beat the Lions for the division, a 10-6 Detroit team would be 8-4 in conference, tying the Bucs.
It would then go to "strength of victory," in which the NFL calculates the winning percentage of all the teams you beat -- the Bucs and Lions are dead even in this (55-74-1) with three weeks to play, so it could come down to the tiniest, seemingly inconsequential ripple from the other side of the league. If the 49ers get a win, it helps the Bucs; if the Rams or Jaguars pull off a win, it helps the Lions. This is how close the wild-card finish could be.
-- There are even scenarios where the Bucs lose out -- go 0-3 to finish 8-8 -- and still make the playoffs. Needless to say, they need a lot of help -- Redskins must lose out, Packers must lose out, Vikings must beat Packers but lose their other two, and after that eight-game parlay hits, the Saints and Panthers likely have to lose at least one each, and then the Bucs are in the playoffs. Alas, they can't win the division without at least one more win.