You're 8-5 in the NFL. What can you expect?
So the Bucs are 8-5 with three weeks left in the NFL season, their first playoff berth in nine years well within reach.
What can an 8-5 team in the NFL expect? There's a full range of potential within the same record -- this year's Steelers are 8-5 and leading their division by a game; this year's Dolphins are 8-5 and three games out of first and wouldn't make the playoffs in the current standings.
The Bucs, Falcons, Broncos, Steelers and Dolphins are all 8-5, and four of the five would make the playoffs right now. Go back over the previous 10 years, and the NFL has had 41 teams who were 8-5 -- only 25, or 61 percent, made the playoffs.
How do they fare in their final three games? Overall, they win just 57 percent of the time, and how many games they win doesn't always correlate with whether they make the playoffs. Want a sob story? The 2008 Patriots finished 3-0 to go 11-5 and still missed the playoffs. Want hope? The 2011 Broncos finished 0-3, went 8-8, still made the playoffs and even won a playoff game (yes, with Tim Tebow at QB).
The Bucs know they make the playoffs at 11-5, and they could -- barely, with a lot of help -- make the playoffs at 8-8. What lies between are the murky waters of 10-6 and 9-7 playoff hopefuls, whose fates are often left to results on other scoreboards.
Here's the math over the past decade for 8-5 teams. Win out, go 11-5, you make the playoffs 90 percent of the time (9/10). Go 2-1 down the stretch, finish 10-6, you make the playoffs 69 percent of the time (11/16). Stumble and go 1-2 to close out the year, finish 9-7, it's a 50/50 prop -- four teams have made it to the playoffs, four missed. And again, lose out, finish 8-8, unless you have Tim Tebow, you're missing the playoffs, with just one of seven teams (14 percent) making the cut.
There can be greatness in an 8-5 team -- in 2010, the Packers were 8-5, finished 10-6, made the playoffs and won the Super Bowl. Of course, that same 2010 season saw the Bucs at 8-3, and they finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs. (The Giants also finished 10-6 and missed the wild card in the NFC that year). Even 8-5 teams that stumble can do well -- the 2008 Cardinals went from 8-5 to 9-7, but rallied to make the Super Bowl in Tampa, losing to the Steelers in the final minute.