Bucs' playoff picture at 8-6: Simple, and complicated
The Bucs' loss to the Cowboys on Sunday night means they no longer control their playoff destiny, but the Bucs are far from out of the playoff chase, both for the NFC South title or a wild-card berth for their first postseason appearance in nine years.
Here are the various scenarios ahead for the Bucs in the final two weeks of the regular season, which have Tampa Bay playing Saturday at New Orleans, then finishing the season at home Jan. 1 against Carolina.
NFC SOUTH TITLE
The Bucs (8-6) are a game behind the Falcons (9-5) for the NFC South title, but if the Bucs can simply win one more game than Atlanta in the final two weeks, they'll win the division and host a playoff game.
Both teams close the season with division games -- Atlanta goes to Carolina, then has the Saints at home, while the Bucs flip-flop that, playing at New Orleans then at home against Carolina. If the Bucs win out and Atlanta splits, both will be 10-6, but Tampa Bay will be 5-1 in the division, while Atlanta would be 4-2, and on that tiebreaker, the Bucs win the division. The same is true if the Bucs win one game and the Falcons go 0-2. This remains the simplest path to the playoffs for Tampa Bay.
NFC WILD CARD
For starters, the Bucs want Carolina to win at Washington tonight -- the Redskins 7-5-1 would be a half-game ahead of the Bucs for the final wild card if they won to improve to 8-5-1. If the Redskins lose any of their remaining three games, the Bucs can stay ahead of Washington by winning their final two games.
The top challengers to the Bucs for the final wild card are from the NFC North, where Detroit is leading with a 9-5 record over the Packers, who have a slight tiebreaker edge on the Bucs right now at 8-6. The problem for Detroit is that they play this week at Dallas, then finish at home against those Packers. Both teams control their destiny -- if either wins out, they take the North and leave the other battling for a wild card.
The Bucs are very close to both teams in tiebreakers -- there is no head-to-head, and if the Bucs and either finished 10-6 or 9-7, they would have no head-to-head tiebreaker and would be even on the next tie breaker, conference record. The next is "record against common opponents," and in a winning-out scenario, the Bucs would have the same record against common opponents as the Packers or Lions, unless Detroit can win at Dallas this weekend.
The next tiebreaker is "strength of victory," which measures the collective winning percentage of all the teams you beat -- if the Packers win out and the Bucs are facing the Lions, they have a good edge here with two weeks to play, so long as Detroit doesn't win at Dallas -- the teams the Bucs are 48-62-1 for a .437 winning percentage, while the teams the Lions have beaten are 48-76-1 (.388). The Bucs beating a Saints team that would be 6-9 puts them at 54-71-1 or .433, still way ahead of Detroit. This can shift slightly based on how all those teams fare in the final week of the season, but the Bucs are unlikely to lose this advantage against the Lions, whether they're both 9-7 or both 10-6.
Should the Packers win next week but lose to the Lions and finish 9-7, they could be in a tiebreaker with the Bucs, and again, it's ridiculously close. Right now, the teams the Packers have beaten are 49-62-1 and the teams the Bucs have beaten are 48-62-1. If the Panthers were to win tonight, the two teams would be deadlocked, which sends it to the next tiebreaker.
That tiebreaker is overall strength of schedule -- the combined record of all 16 opponents. RIght now, the Bucs' opponents are 97-96-2 and the Packers' opponents are 99-94-2, with 33 games to be played by each set of opponents to shift that one way or another. If the Bucs' opponents go 18-15 and the Packers' go 15-18, that's all it takes for the tiebreaker to shift in the Bucs' favor.
If the Bucs were to lose out and finish 8-8, they would still be alive, but only so long as the Redskins go 0-3, the Packers go 0-2 (and lose the tiebreaker) and the Vikings go 1-1 or worse. But that's a very limited number of scenarios -- the Bucs should be in good shape if they go 2-0, and need help if they go 1-1 here in the next two weeks.