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Jones: Four Bucs games remain — today's could be the key

DT Gerald McCoy and the Bucs have four games left: at home vs. Saints and Panthers, on the road vs. Cowboys and Saints.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

DT Gerald McCoy and the Bucs have four games left: at home vs. Saints and Panthers, on the road vs. Cowboys and Saints.

Four games.

That will decide whether or not the Bucs make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Tampa Bay is 7-5 and tied for first place in the NFC South with Atlanta and, at worst, holds down the second wild-card spot.

The next four games will determine the Bucs' fate.

Home today against the Saints, at Dallas, at New Orleans, home against the Panthers.

If they go 4-0, they're in. If they go 3-1, they're likely in.

If they go 0-4, they're out. If they go 1-3, they're likely out.

But what if they go 2-2?

And, if I had to predict, 2-2 sounds about right. My guess: a split with New Orleans, a loss to Dallas, a victory over Carolina.

That's 2-2. Will that be good enough?

Sort of looks that way.

But this much seems clear: The Bucs need to win today. A loss could be a death punch.

So let's go out on a limb. The Bucs' playoff chances hinge on the outcome of today's game.

Let's dissect.

A 2-2 mark leaves the Bucs with a 9-7 record. That's unlikely good enough to win the NFC South, assuming no injuries or crazy circumstances come into play.

Atlanta is 7-5, too, but with a soft schedule, the Falcons seem headed to a 3-1 stretch run and a 10-6 record to win the NFC South.

That would leave Tampa Bay fighting with the Giants (8-4), Washington (6-5-1), Vikings (6-6), Packers (6-6) and Cardinals (5-6-1) for one of two wild-card spots.

That's assuming the Eagles (5-7) and Saints (5-7) are done. The Vikings look done, too, having lost six of seven. And the Cardinals' record makes them a long shot.

Meantime, let's not assume the Giants are in. Despite a lead, the Giants' schedule won't be easy: home against the Cowboys and Lions, on the road against the Eagles and Washington.

This looks like it's all going to come down to the Giants, Washington, Packers and Bucs for two spots.

Watch out for Washington. Its schedule is clear of major potholes: at Philly, losers of seven of nine; home against Carolina, which is fading; at the dreadful Bears; home against the Giants. A 4-0 run is entirely possible.

Meantime, the Packers' chances are going to depend on today's home game against Seattle and a season finale at Detroit. If they win both, they are in great shape. Lose even once and they're likely headed to 8-8.

A month's worth of games — maybe as many as 25 or 30 — could impact who gets in and who is left out. Coming to definite conclusions is impossible. One point in just one of those games could flip the entire postseason.

According to the New York Times playoff simulator, if the Bucs split with the Saints, lose to the Cowboys and beat the Panthers, they will have a 67 percent chance to make the playoffs.

But much of how the Bucs fare comes down to today's game against the Saints.

If Tampa Bay can't beat the Saints here, what makes it think it can win two weeks from now in New Orleans? A loss today would make that game at New Orleans absolutely critical. Lose today and it feels like we're in store for a 1-3 finish.

But a victory makes 2-2 very much possible.

And in good shape to make the playoffs.

Jones: Four Bucs games remain — today's could be the key 12/10/16 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2016 9:12pm]
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