Bucs fan primer: Who to root for in Week 15
Welcome back for another week of Advanced Scoreboard Watching, now in its fourth week of helping Bucs fans figure out who they should pull for to optimize the Bucs' playoff chances. Obviously Tampa Bay's core strategy of late, "Keep Winning," has worked out extremely well. The rest of the league did not cooperate much at all last week, with the Redskins, Packers and Vikings still lurking a single win behind the Bucs after winning last week.
We'll start with the simple stuff, and remember that because the Bucs play at 8:30 on Sunday night, most of this will run its course before Tampa Bay takes the field. Dallas and Seattle are now in, so you essentially have seven NFC teams battling for four spots. As always, upsetting the Cowboys is much more valuable than any of these outcomes, but each outside game that goes the Bucs' way helps lessen the blow of a Tampa Bay loss.
For percentages, I'm going to use the New York Times' Playoff Simulator, which is a great tool for checking playoff implications.
Lions (9-4) at Giants (9-4), 1: This game is huge: The winner of this game is all but in the playoffs -- the Lions, for instance, can win here, lose their remaining two games and still make the playoffs in 98 percent of NYT scenarios. The Giants win here, they still make it in 86 percent of the scenarios in which they lose their last two.
The challenge for Bucs fans is this: Which team do you think the Bucs can catch more easily? The winner of this game could be two games up on the Bucs with two weeks left, requiring not only them to go 0-2 and the Bucs to go 2-0, but the Bucs to also win the tiebreaker. So focus your energy on the Bucs passing the loser of this game.
The Lions play at the Cowboys and against the Packers in their last two games, so they could easily lose both. The Giants have two on the road, but with the Eagles and Redskins, they're unlikely to go 0-2. So the smart call is to concede the Giants as a playoff team and pull for them, hoping this triggers a three-game freefall for the Lions, who have been amazing in the fourth quarter but now have quarterback Matthew Stafford with a bad injury on his throwing hand. Detroit finishing 1-2, if not 0-3, is very possible, and frankly, ideal for Bucs fans.
(The other benefit to the Lions losing is it helps the chance that, should the Bucs win their division, they could have a higher seed and -- this is unlikely but -- potentially a better draw in the opening round of the playoffs. A bye? Seems silly to even mention, but if they win two of three, NYT gives them at least an 18 percent shot at a bye.)
Packers (7-6) at Bears (3-10), 1: A Chicago win is unlikely here, but if the Bears could pull it off, it would give the Bucs a tiebreaker advantage over the Packers in "games against common opponents," should Tampa Bay and Green Bay finish with the same record. The Bucs would be 3-2 (even with a Cowboys loss) and the Packers would be 2-3, so if they both finished, say, 9-7, it could be a huge swing for the Bucs.
(This is where you hear Bucs fans mention 2010, which saw Tampa Bay and Green Bay both finish 10-6 -- the Bucs missed the playoffs, the Packers made it and went on to win the Super Bowl. A loss to the Bears here, however unlikely, would be a huge boost for the Bucs.) However ...
If the Packers can pick up one game on the Lions in the next two weeks, their showdown in Detroit in Week 17 is for the NFC North title. So if the Packers win this weekend and the Lions lose, you can start thinking of the Lions as the more likely wild-card rival for the Bucs, and that's a good thing -- the Bucs line up much closer to the Lions in the tiebreaker known as "strength of victory," or how much the teams you've beaten have won this season.
Colts (6-7) at Vikings (7-6), 1: As we've mentioned, Minnesota has dropped six of its last eight, so even if they got Adrian Peterson back for the stretch run, they'd have to win at Lambeau next week to keep pace in the wild-card hunt. Split their next two, they get to close at home against Chicago, so they could salvage 9-7. Their problem is they got swept by the Lions, so they lose a tiebreaker to them, and they're 4-6 in conference, so they're going to lose a tiebreaker to the Bucs. Of course, Bucs fans are rooting for the Colts here to take the Vikings more out of the picture.
49ers (1-12) at Falcons (8-5), 4:05: Atlanta's a 14-point favorite, so they're extremely unlikely to stumble here at home. Obviously it's wonderful for the Bucs if they do, but it's important to remember that even if the Falcons win and the Bucs lose this weekend, the division title picture doesn't change for the Bucs.
What that means is that if the Bucs can simply win one more game in the final two weeks than the Falcons do -- both of them play the Saints and Panthers, with a road game on Christmas Eve and a home game to finish the season -- then the Bucs win the NFC South and get to host a playoff game.
Why? Say the Bucs beat New Orleans and Carolina and the Falcons split -- even with the worst outcome this weekend, Tampa Bay and Atlanta would both be 10-6, and the Bucs would be 5-1 in division, the Falcons 4-2, so they'd get the tiebreaker there. So win one more than the Falcons in the final two weeks, the Bucs are in.
The dream scenario? Bucs, as touchdown underdogs, beat Cowboys, and Falcons lose to 49ers, and then Bucs can clinch the NFC South on Christmas Eve with a win at New Orleans and a Falcons loss at Carolina. Not sayiing it's going to happen, just saying it could technically happen.
Panthers (5-8) at Redskins (7-5-1), Monday, 8:30: Carolina can be a great friend to the Bucs in the next two weeks. If Cam Newton can get a road win on a huge platform here, it lessens the biggest threat to the Bucs' wild-card hopes. Next week, they can beat the Falcons and help the Bucs' division hopes. If the Bucs lose Sunday night, the Redskins know they can again control their destiny for a wild card, so they'll be a motivated team. Bucs fans are big-time Panthers fans for the next two weeks.
That tie in the Redskins' record is a reminder that the Bucs were 1:45 away from earning a tie against Oakland, which went for it on fourth-and-3 late in overtime and got a touchdown to beat the Bucs. Pull off that tie, and the Bucs would be 8-4-1 and have the tiebreaker advantage on the Redskins, even with a loss this week and a Redskins win. But alas ...