Bucs face tougher, West-heavy schedule in 2016
Just as being eliminated from playoff contention as the Bucs looking ahead, it's a good time for us to do the same, taking an early look at the Bucs' 2016 schedule, which has all but two games determined.
NFL teams rotate through one NFC and one AFC division each season, and the Bucs should have a tougher schedule in both cases. Tampa Bay has been fortunate to face the NFL's two weakest divisions this year in the NFC East and AFC South -- those divisions are 14-24 and 12-26, respectively, against teams outside their division, the worst marks in the NFL this year.
In 2016, they'll face the NFC West and AFC West, who have had considerably more success this year -- the NFC West is 22-16 out of division this season, while the AFC West is 20-18, so instead of facing the NFL's two weakest divisions, they're facing the No. 3 and 5, all while playing in what is statistically tied for the best division in the NFC South.
(The full rundown of all eight divisions and their record outside the division: NFC South 23-15, AFC East 23-15, NFC West 22-16, NFC North 19-17, AFC West 20-18, AFC North 18-20, NFC East 14-24, AFC South 12-26.)
That covers 14 of the Bucs' 16 games -- six NFC South games as usual, plus trips to Arizona, San Diego (or its new home), San Francisco and Kansas City; and home games against Denver, Oakland, St. Louis and Seattle.
While the power can shift from division to division in a single year -- remember how weak the NFC South was a year ago -- what won't change is the logistical challenge of going out far West three times in a single season. The Bucs haven't had to do that since 2004, when they went 0-3 in losses at Oakland, San Diego and Arizona.
The Bucs have had decent success on the West Coast in recent years -- they're 4-2 since 2009, with wins at Oakland (2012), Arizona (2010), San Francisco (2010) and Seattle (2009). Before that, however, they'd lost seven straight out West from 2003-07. They're largely unfamiliar and unsuccessful trips for the Bucs -- they're 2-12 all-time at San Francisco, 2-8 all-time against the Chargers and have been to Kansas City just once since 1986, winning there in 2008.
The final two games on the Bucs' schedule remain to be determined -- they'll travel to face the NFC East team that finishes in the same spot in the standings as the Bucs do, and they'll play host to their counterpart from the NFC North. With two weeks to go, that could be any of the four teams in either division -- the Bucs are a game back of second and a game ahead of fourth place in their own division, and the other standings are similarly close.