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Bucs-Cardinals AfterMath: Playoffs? Here’s a not crazy (okay, it’s sort of crazy) path.

Let Jamel Dean’s game-changing interception against Arizona serve as a reminder: Anything is possible. Even in Tampa Bay.
 
There really is a path to the playoffs for the Bucs. And, no, we're not on drugs.
There really is a path to the playoffs for the Bucs. And, no, we're not on drugs. [ Times ]
Published Nov. 12, 2019|Updated Nov. 16, 2019

TAMPA — It was so much more than an interception.

A game-changer? Absolutely. But still so much more.

When Jamel Dean picked off a Kyler Murray pass late in the Buccaneers’ win over the Cardinals on Sunday, it was a reminder, a reminder that in sports anything can happen at any time. Even when they’re not supposed to. Even in Tampa Bay.

In the closing moments of the fourth quarter, the odds were stacked against Dean and the Bucs. A week ago, the rookie cornerback had allowed three touchdowns. Murray, meanwhile, hadn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 29 — a span of 211 consecutive passes.

When he dropped back to pass on that fateful second-and-10 play, Tampa Bay, trailing 27-23, was hanging by a thread. Various probability models placed Arizona’s chances of winning at greater than 90 percent.

In a two-minute span during the fourth quarter Sunday, the Bucs' win probability plummeted about 70 percentage points.
In a two-minute span during the fourth quarter Sunday, the Bucs' win probability plummeted about 70 percentage points. [ Times ]

Four minutes later, the Bucs were celebrating their first home win of the season.

Could it be? A turnaround? Could this team make a run at the … the … p-p-p-playoffs?

Crazy talk, you say? You’re probably right. After all, Tampa Bay, at 3-6, is 17 times more likely to land a top-five pick in April’s draft than it is to reach the postseason.

Even so, coach Bruce Arians has been clear on a couple of points:

1.) For better or worse, he has no intention of looking toward 2020.

2.) He doesn’t care about or understand probability. The man isn’t afraid to waste timeouts, but going for it on fourth down? Nope, too risky.

Much would have to fall the Bucs’ way for them to make the playoffs, but we were able to chart, with the help of the New York Times’ playoff calculator, a somewhat realistic path to them being in the picture heading into the final weekend of the season. All aboard the crazy train!

• The Bucs can help their cause by, you know, winning more often. Even if they win their next six games, however, their chances are still worse than a coin flip.

Besides, Tampa Bay is not going to win six in a row. This is an average team that, more often than not, has found ways to lose. We have to build in at least some margin for error.

Assume the Bucs lose as expected next week to the Saints (FiveThirtyEight gives New Orleans a 69 percent chance of winning). That would be a crushing blow, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a season killer. Their next five opponents: Falcons (away), Jaguars (away), Colts (home), Lions (away) and Texans (home). Those are all winnable games. It’s conceivable that they could be 8-7 heading into Week 17.

• Let’s concede the NFC South to the soon-to-be 8-2 Saints. A wild-card berth is a more realistic goal. As of today, there are eight teams in front of the Bucs (nine if we count the NFC East-leading Cowboys, who easily could fall back into the wild-card picture): the Seahawks, Vikings, Rams, Eagles, Panthers, Bears, Lions and Cardinals.

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• The Bucs would need either the Seahawks OR the Vikings to lose all or almost all of their remaining games. It’s unlikely, of course, that either team will do that, but it’s more likely for the Seahawks, who are the weaker team and have the NFL’s most difficult remaining schedule.

We’ve seen such collapses before: The 1995 Raiders started 8-2 and lost their final six games. The 1994 Eagles started 7-2 and lost their final seven. The 1987 Chargers started 8-1 and lost their final six. The 1978 Packers started 7-2 and finished 8-7-1. That same season, Washington started 7-2 and lost six of its final seven.

• So say the Seahawks lose their next five and are 8-7 heading into Week 17. What else would need to happen for the Bucs to climb back into contention? Assuming again that they lose to the Saints and beat everyone else, every team presently in front of them could win all of their home games but would need to lose all of their road games. That’s a little too clean, but it’s not all that far-fetched, is it? In fact, some of those outcomes would be detrimental to the Bucs’ chances (the Eagles beating the Patriots in Week 11, the Rams beating the Ravens in Week 12 or the Panthers beating Washington, for example).

• If everything fell into place, these would be the NFC wild-card standings heading into Week 17:

Vikings: 10-5

Eagles: 9-6

Bucs: 8-7

Panthers: 8-7

Seahawks: 8-7

Cardinals: 7-7-1

Bears: 7-8

Cowboys: 7-8

Rams: 7-8

Lions: 5-9-1

In this scenario, the Vikings have clinched one of the conference’s two wild-card slots, and the Eagles have clinched the NFC East, leaving seven teams in the running for the second wild-card slot: the Bucs, Panthers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Bears, Cowboys and Rams.

• That gets us to Week 17 with the Bucs still alive — barely. Their chances of making the playoffs: 18 percent. To get to 100 percent, three things would have to happen. Not only would they have to beat the Falcons, but the Saints would have to beat the Panthers and the 49ers would have to beat the Seahawks.

Chances are Tampa Bay wins maybe three more games, finishes 6-10 and misses the playoffs for the 12th straight season. We’ll assess what went wrong and debate where to go from here.

But today? Let’s linger a little while longer on the statement Dean made when he intercepted that pass Sunday: This thing isn’t over yet.

From 1 to 100 percent: A week-by-week look at how the Bucs can make the playoffs

Week 11: SAINTS BEAT BUCS, Vikings beat Broncos, Rams beat Bears, Eagles beat Patriots, Panthers beat Falcons, Lions beat Cowboys, 49ers beat Cardinals

Week 12: BUCS BEAT FALCONS, Eagles beat Seahawks, Rams beat Ravens, Saints beat Panthers, Bears beat Giants, Washington beats Lions, Patriots beat Cowboys

Week 13: BUCS BEAT JAGUARS, Vikings beat Seahawks, Cardinals beat Rams, Dolphins beat Eagles, Panthers beat Washington, Lions beat Bears, Cowboys beat Bills

Week 14: BUCS BEAT COLTS, Rams beat Seahawks, Vikings beat Lions, Eagles beat Giants, Falcons beat Panthers, Bears beat Cowboys, Cardinals beat Steelers

Week 15: BUCS BEAT LIONS, Panthers beat Seahawks, Chargers beat Vikings, Cowboys beat Rams, Washington beats Eagles, Packers beat Bears, Cardinals beat Browns

Week 16: BUCS BEAT TEXANS, Cardinals beat Seahawks, Vikings beat Packers, 49ers beat Rams, Eagles beat Cowboys, Colts beat Panthers, Bears beat Chiefs, Broncos beat Lions

Week 17: BUCS BEAT FALCONS, Saints beat Panthers, 49ers beat Seahawks

NFC South standings (based on the above outcomes only)

1. Saints: 10-2 overall (4-1 within the division)

2. Bucs: 9-7 (3-3)

3. Panthers: 8-8 (2-4)

4. Falcons: 3-10 (2-3)

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.