TAMPA — It seems a simple question. Posed without expectation or agenda.
What, someone asks innocently, is involved in Tampa Bay's quest for a playoff spot?
The answer, in a word, is everything.
It may involve Eagles receiver Kevin Curtis gaining 9 yards on a third-and-10 play in overtime against the Bengals in November. It might include Atlanta tackle Tyson Clabo being called for holding in the final minutes of a loss to the Broncos four weeks ago. And it certainly seems huge that Seneca Wallace completed a 45-yard pass to Deion Branch to set up the last-second field goal for Seattle against St. Louis on Sunday in a battle of 2-11 teams.
You see, for Tampa Bay, it could all matter.
Coming off consecutive losses, the Buccaneers still control their own destiny this morning. And destiny may be the perfect term because a confluence of unrelated events put them in a rather envious position.
The simplest way to explain it:
The Bucs clinch a playoff spot with victories in their final two games.
It's not because the Bucs would be the only wild-card contender with 11 victories; the Cowboys and Falcons could both finish 11-5. It's not because the Bucs win any head-to-head tiebreakers; they lost to the Cowboys and split with the Falcons. It's not because they would have the best division record; the Bucs and Falcons could both be 3-3. It's not because they would have the best record among common opponents; the Bucs and Falcons could both be 9-3. It's not because they would have the best conference record; the Bucs and Falcons could both be 8-4.
The reason Tampa Bay would have an edge against Atlanta if both teams finish 11-5 is because … the Rams stink a little bit more than the Seahawks.
How's that for a battle cry?
There is a good chance it never gets to that point. The Falcons are flying to Minnesota this weekend, and the Vikings are a strong home team still fighting to win the NFC North. The Cowboys also have a tough couple of weeks with games against the Ravens and Eagles.
All the convoluted tiebreakers could be moot if Atlanta or Dallas fails to keep pace. But if the Falcons, Cowboys and Bucs finish in a tie for the two wild-card berths at 11-5, the Bucs may want to look into getting Seattle kicker Olindo Mare a Hickory Farms holiday basket.
In any three-way tie for a wild card, the reigning law is to use division tiebreakers to whittle down teams from the same division. So, in this case, the Falcons and Bucs would essentially go to the judge's cards for a decision.
Since their schedules are the same except for two dates (Tampa Bay had the Cowboys and Seahawks while Atlanta had the Eagles and Rams), the Bucs and Falcons could end up with nearly identical cases. And that means the first four tiebreakers (head-to-head, division record, record in common games, record in the conference) would solve nothing.
Which could bring them to the fifth tiebreaker: the coin flip known as strength of victory.
This involves adding the records of all the opponents you have beaten and figuring out who beat better teams. If the Falcons, Cowboys and Bucs finish 11-5, the strength of victory tiebreaker would come down to the records of the Seahawks (3-11) and Rams (2-12). Since the Falcons would have to beat the Rams in the season finale to trigger this tiebreaker, that means the Rams can do no better than tie Seattle. So either the Bucs win this tiebreaker or they remain knotted with the Falcons.
Which could bring them to the sixth tiebreaker: the crapshoot known as strength of schedule.
In this case, you add up the records of all your opponents, wins or losses. Since 14 of their opponents are common and since Seattle and St. Louis would have the same record in this scenario, then it would come down to the difference between Tampa Bay playing Dallas and Atlanta playing Philadelphia.
Again, this tiebreaker presupposes Dallas is 11-5. And the best record the Eagles could have is 10-5-1. So that means the Bucs would win the tiebreaker against Atlanta because of Philadelphia's 13-13 game against the Bengals, the NFL's first tie in six years.
The irony is the NFL tries to handicap better teams by giving them tougher schedules. So, by virtue of winning the division last season, the Bucs were theoretically given two tougher opponents than Atlanta. And those two opponents (Dallas and Seattle) could be the difference between making the playoffs or sitting at home with an 11-5 record.
And what happens if the Bucs lose one of their final two games? They could still make the playoffs at 10-6 if the Falcons lose to the Vikings and the Eagles lose one of their games.
And if the Bucs lose both?
Suffice to say they would no longer control their destiny. They would have obliterated it.