Bucs fan primer: Who to root for in NFL this weekend
With six weeks left in the NFL season, the Bucs are 5-5 and very much in playoff contention. Even with last year's 6-6 dalliance, this is largely unfamiliar territory for Bucs fans in recent years, and we're here to help.
Scoreboard watching is more than just a curiosity now -- as a Bucs fan, you have a specific agenda for the rest of the league, which is pulling for outcomes that facilitate the Bucs' first playoff appearance in nine years. Yes, you want the Bucs to win out -- 11-5 will get the job done in nearly any scenario -- but absent that, Tampa Bay could use some help, so here's our guide to which games matter and who you should be pulling for if you're looking out for the Bucs' best interests.
Eight games this weekend have essentially no bearing on the Bucs -- either all-AFC affairs or involving teams significantly lower than the Bucs in the NFC standings. Yes, we're talking to you, Bears and 49ers. Here's what Bucs fans should be pulling for around the rest of the league, starting with two games today:
Vikings at Lions, today at 12:30: They're both 6-4, so the winner will be atop the NFC North and the loser will be prime wild-card competition. What's important is that the team that loses here continues to lose and fall below the Bucs in the wild card. Both have the Cowboys, Packers and Bears in their remaining games, but the Lions have a tougher path, with the Saints and Giants ahead, as opposed to the Vikings, who just have the Colts and Jaguars. So a Vikings road win is probably optimal for the Bucs.
Redskins at Cowboys, today at 4:30: Dallas is far enough above the Bucs that their wins won't hurt Tampa Bay at all. The Redskins, however, are 6-3-1 and would be the second NFC wild card, so Bucs fans should actively root against them. Washington next goes to Arizona and Philadelphia, so they could easily go 1-2 in their next three, if not worse. "Way to go Dallas!" is what Bucs fans should be saying.
Cardinals at Falcons, Sunday at 1: Arizona's still in wild-card contention, but any Falcons loss is huge for the Bucs, who are actually closer to a division title than they are the wild card. So while a win would get the Cards right back into wild-card contention, the simplest path for the Bucs to the postseason -- with a home playoff game even -- is to outpace the Falcons over the final six games. Arizona is your choice here.
Giants at Browns, Sunday at 1: Few things are more futile than rooting for Cleveland this season, but the Giants would be the first NFC wild card at 7-3, so any loss, however improbable, would help the Bucs' wild-card chances. The Browns are 0-for-2016 so far, but New York's final five are daunting: at Pittsburgh, vs. Dallas, vs. Detroit, at Philadelphia and at Washington. Even up two games on the Bucs, it's conceivable they could lose two or three in their final five.
Rams at Saints, Sunday at 1: Both teams are 4-6 and in wild-card contention, so it's something of a wash. The Rams' finish is rough -- at the Patriots, at the Seahawks, with the Falcons and Cards at home -- so it's probably safer to root for them to win, knowing Jeff Fisher's team is fated to be 7-9 at best. The Bucs get the Saints twice in the next five weeks, so they can take care of New Orleans themselves.
Panthers at Raiders, Sunday at 4:25: Bucs fans have to be AFC fans whenever there's a cross-conference game. The Panthers are lurking at 4-6 and come to Tampa on Jan. 1 for the season finale, so the Bucs want Carolina to be out of contention with little to play for when they come to town. Carolina still has games at Seattle and at Washington, so they have a tough schedule to overcome their surprisingly bad start, and may have to do so without Luke Kuechly. Just win, baby.
Packers at Eagles, Monday at 8:30: Which team do you fear more as a wild-card threat? Probably the Packers, who still have Aaron Rodgers -- them at 4-6 might be more dangerous than Philadelphia at 5-5 with Carson Wentz and little momentum after a promising start. Three of Green Bay's final five are division leaders -- Houston, Seattle and Minnesota -- so they have it tough down the stretch. So do the Eagles, who have three more against teams ahead of them in the NFC East and are more likely to play spoiler than surprise wild card. Pull for Green Bay so they're both 5-6, then hope the Bucs can outsprint them both.