Laying out Bucs' playoff scenarios for final two weeks
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, it's been a while since the Bucs have had playoff scenarios to calculate and so much motivation to win their final games.
As we've mentioned, the Bucs' playoff future is at the same time, extremely simple, or if they don't win their remaining games, potentially very complicated.
The Redskins' loss on Monday helped the Bucs out considerably, putting Tampa Bay back ahead of Washington in the wild-card standings. We'll start with the simple stuff and go from there ...
CLINCHING THIS WEEKEND: The Bucs have a narrow chance to clinch their first playoff berth in nine years this weekend, certainly a Christmas gift for their fans. Here's what must happen: The Bucs obviously need to win at New Orleans on Saturday, and the Packers must lose at home to the Vikings and the Redskins must lose at the Bears, and then the clincher would be Detroit losing at the Cowboys on Monday night. That gives the Bucs the edge on the loser of next week's Lions-Packers game and puts them in the playoffs. Everything else carries over to Week 17.
CLINCHING NFC SOUTH: Very simple: The Bucs need to win more games than the Falcons in the final two weeks of the season. That could mean the Bucs sweeping the Saints and Panthers and the Falcons losing one of their two games against the same two teams. It could mean the Bucs winning either of their games and the Falcons losing both. If either of those scenarios play out, the Bucs will have the division title and will host a playoff game. What's more, they would do so within two days of the college football national championship game being played on the same field Jan. 9.
CLINCHING WILD CARD: Lots of ways this can happen, but for the Bucs, the simplest path is winning their final two games and having Detroit lose to the Cowboys on Monday night. On that alone, they have a playoff berth, with the tiebreaker over the Lions if both finish 10-6 and don't win their divisions.
WIN OUT, STILL MISS: If the Bucs win out, they make the playoffs in about 98 percent of the possible scenarios. One that doesn't: The Bucs win out, but the Falcons win out to win the NFC South. The Packers win out to win the NFC North, but the Lions beat the Cowboys before losing to Green Bay, which gives them the tiebreaker advantage. If this happens and the Giants win either of their last two games, the Bucs would miss the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. If the Giants lose their last two games, they would fall behind the Bucs in a tiebreaker and the Bucs would be OK for a wild-card berth.
IF THEY LOSE: The Bucs are essentially competing with the Giants (10-4), Lions (9-7), Packers (8-6), Redskins (7-6-1) and to a lesser extent the Vikings (7-7). If the Bucs lose, they need more help from more teams to make it as a wild card. Except for the Redskins, that means an elaborate sequence of tiebreakers that move increasingly away from what the Bucs have actually done.
If the Bucs finish 9-7, the Giants have the first wild card, so they're battling for the final spot. For a wild card, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head, but the Bucs haven't played any of these teams, so it doesn't come into play. Next is conference record -- if the Bucs are in 9-7 tiebreakers, they'll be 7-5 in conference, which would match the Packers and Lions, sending it to additional tiebreakers. Even if the Vikings made it to 9-7, they'd lose out on their 6-6 conference record in a tiebreaker.
The Packers and Bucs are insanely close in tiebreakers. The next is "record against common opponents" -- both teams went 3-2 against their common opponents, so that's a wash. Next is "strength of victory," which adds together the records of all the teams you've beaten -- again, amazingly, the teams the Bucs beat and the teams the Packers beat are each 49-62-1, so that's a wash. Next is "strength of schedule" -- just add up the records of the 16 opponents on your schedule, and it's still remarkably close -- the Packers' opponents are 99-95-2 and the Bucs' opponents are 98-96-2, a single game out of 196 outcomes separating them.
These can change, obviously -- every time the 49ers, Falcons, Chiefs, Chargers or Saints win, it helps the Bucs, but every time the Jaguars, Lions, Giants, Eagles, Texans or Bears win, it helps the Packers. How those 11 teams fare in the final two weeks could help decide whether the Bucs are a playoff team.
If the Bucs get into a tiebreaker with the Lions, it's simpler. One catch: As it relates to tiebreakers with the Lions, the Bucs at 9-7 beating the Saints and losing to the Panthers is much better than the Bucs at 9-7 beating the Panthers and losing to the Saints. See, that "common opponents" tiebreaker with the Lions includes the Saints, so if the Bucs lose there, the Lions have that tiebreaker. Barring that, the Bucs' "strength of victory" win percentage is .442 (49-62-1), while the Lions are down at .385 (48-77-1) -- you'd need a huge, very unlikely swing from the teams the Lions beat to overcome that difference and keep the Bucs from winning the tiebreaker
EVEN IF THEY LOSE OUT: The Bucs could finish 8-8, losing their last three games, and still make the playoffs. It's not easy by any means -- the Falcons win out and win the South, the Giants get the first wild card, the Lions win the North, the Redskins lose out to finish 7-8-1, the Vikings must lose to the Bears and the Packers lose out to finish 8-8 and have the Bucs win those super-close tiebreakers. If the Saints or Panthers win out, they get to 8-8 and complicate things even more. So probably better to win at least one game.