At 7-5, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be in the NFC Playoffs — if they started today.
Since they don't, here's how the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs coverage team finished the sentence "The Bucs make the playoffs if ...."
A little help, please
Tom Jones, @tomwjones: They get help from an unlikely source: somebody on Atlanta's schedule.
The Bucs are tied with the Falcons, but Atlanta is in good shape in the tie-breakers if both teams finish with the same record. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, the Falcons schedule isn't very touch down the stretch. The next two games are against the Rams and 49ers, teams with a combined record of 5-19. The other two games after that are against the Panthers and Saints, teams with a combined record of 9-15. So let's say Tampa Bay goes 3-1 in the final four. That means, the Bucs will need Atlanta to lose twice and it doesn't seem as if two losses are there. Maybe Tampa Bay's best hope is Atlanta will get upset this week at Los Angeles.
Rick Stroud, @NFLStroud: They win three of their next four games and don't suffer any significant injuries.
The receiving corps are depleted. Cecil Shorts is out and Adam Humphries is under concussion protocol. Keith Tandy is a pro and had a huge game filling in for Chris Conte. Other than that, the Bucs are the healthiest they've been at defensive line, running back and offensive line, where it really counts.
Overcome the wizardry of Drew Brees
Ernest Hooper, @hoop4you: The Bucs play the Saints twice and they need to win both with Dallas sandwiched in between. Detroit provided a blueprint on how to slow down the future Hall of Fame quarterback and its cadre of weapons last week. Tampa Bay would do well to replicate that effort and one of the keys will involve time of possession and keeping Brees off the field. You can't threw darts all over the field if you aren't on the field.
Keep up the complements
Thomas Bassinger, @tometrics: Each Bucs unit is feeding off the other right now. The offense is doing just enough and generally has avoided costly mistakes.
If the offense isn't scoring, it's at least advancing the ball far enough to give punter Bryan Anger a shot at pinning the opponent deep in its own territory. About half of his punts have landed inside the 20 (48.1 percent, to be exact, which ranks fifth).
The defense, in turn, has not had to protect short fields like it had earlier in the season. Opponents are having to execute more plays, and they're making more mistakes. The Bucs' 20 takeaways since Week 5 are the most in the NFL.
Sweep the Saints
Greg Auman, @gregauman: Drew Brees remains as consistently prolific a passer as there is in the NFL, but the Saints have lost with great offenses for years. This defense has been historically bad in past seasons, and the Bucs need to have enough healthy offensive pieces to take advantage of it -- even as they lose more receivers, they've never had this many talented backs in an offense that Dirk Koetter prides himself on being run-first.
So if you know you can score 30 points against New Orleans -- and you get them at home in Tampa first -- this is two games the Bucs can enter with confidence. The defense doesn't need to hold New Orleans to five points or 10, or likely even 17, as they have in recent wins. If the offense can just move the ball and avoid turnovers -- something teams do against New Orleans -- their defense just needs to step up to the challenge.
Beat Brees home and home
Martin Fennelly, @mjfennelly: Winning at the Cowboys on a Sunday night seems a reach, and it's hard to believe Cam Newton will even show up for the finale. So the road to 10-6 and the playoffs goes through Drew Brees, home and away.
I think it's tough to beat a division opponent twice in three weeks. Brees throws for three bills against the Bucs in his sleep. But the Lions just laid down the template in Sunday's win at New Orleans: Make Brees check down, limit his time of possession. Keep bringing pressure up the middle. It paid off in San Diego.
Beat the Saints twice and you're in.