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Bucs rise to No. 2 seed in NFC playoff picture

The Cardinals fall from No. 1 to 3 with their loss to the Rams on Monday night.
If the cards (and wins) fall the Bucs' way, the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, left, may be meeting Tom Brady and Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium during the playoffs.
If the cards (and wins) fall the Bucs' way, the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, left, may be meeting Tom Brady and Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium during the playoffs. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 14, 2021|Updated Dec. 15, 2021

TAMPA — It seems appropriate that the Bucs will have a chance to take the crown off the champion’s head when they try to win the NFC South by beating the Saints on Sunday night.

New Orleans has won the division four years in a row and owns a six-game winning streak over Tampa Bay in the regular season.

Perhaps more impressively, Saints coach Sean Payton has beaten the Bucs with Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston (before his ACL injury) at quarterback.

“I have so much respect for that team and especially that defense and what Sean (Payton) does with whoever they have playing quarterback,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s going to be a heck of a ballgame. T-shirt and hat games are big. They’re fun locker rooms. Hopefully we play (well) enough against them that we can put them on.”

Wearing division championship gear for the first time since 2007 comes with the guarantee of at least one home playoff game.

But the Bucs are playing for a lot more than what seems to be an inevitable NFC South title.

Following the Rams’ 30-23 win over the Cardinals on Monday night, the Bucs, Packers and Cardinals all have 10-3 records.

Right now, Green Bay owns the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC based on its 8-2 conference record. The Bucs and Cardinals are 6-3. So the Packers control their own playoff destiny and can keep that seed, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by winning their last four games.

Let’s take a closer look at the NFC playoff race:

Packers (10-3), No. 1 seed

Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas (29) runs back an interception for a touchdown during Sunday's win over the Bears.
Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas (29) runs back an interception for a touchdown during Sunday's win over the Bears. [ JEFFREY PHELPS | Associated Press ]

Remaining opponents: at Ravens, vs. Browns, vs. Vikings, at Lions

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is battling an ankle injury that forced him out of Sunday’s loss to the Browns. Cleveland trails that division by a game, so it will have plenty to play for when visiting Green Bay on Christmas.

The Vikings (6-7) are capable of pulling off an upset, but their season is trending in the wrong direction. Detroit? Please.

The only unknown is whether quarterback Aaron Rodgers can continue playing on an injured toe. He says he suffered a setback Sunday night, but surgery is a last resort.

The Packers have lost in the NFC Championship Game each of the past two seasons, including last year’s defeat to the Bucs at Lambeau Field. That’s plenty of pressure on Rodgers, who hasn’t committed to remaining in Green Bay beyond the 2021 season.

Bucs (10-3), No. 2 seed

Bucs running back Leonard Fournette scrambles to escape the Bills defense during the third quarter Sunday.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette scrambles to escape the Bills defense during the third quarter Sunday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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Remaining opponents: vs. Saints, at Panthers, at Jets, vs. Panthers

The Cardinals’ loss vaulted the Bucs to the second seed in the NFC. Tampa Bay has won four in a row and has the easiest remaining schedule of the top seeds.

The Bucs can win the division by beating the Saints on Sunday. If they run the table with four straight wins, they would be assured the No. 2 seed and at least two home playoff games in the same postseason for the first time since 1979. They would maintain this advantage over the Cardinals based on the tiebreaker of common opponents. The Bucs would be 5-1 against teams Arizona also plays, and the Cardinals couldn’t finish better than 4-2.

Right now, the reason the Bucs have a higher seed than the Cardinals is based on “strength of victory.” The 10 teams the Bucs have beaten are a combined 64-66, while the Cardinals’ 10 wins have come against teams that are 58-72.

As long as the Bucs win out they can’t fall lower than the No. 2 seed, and one stumble by the Packers would give Tampa Bay top billing.

If the season ended today, the Bucs would host Washington.

Cardinals (10-3), No. 3 seed

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray looks for running room against the Rams Monday night.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray looks for running room against the Rams Monday night. [ RALPH FRESO | Associated Press ]

Remaining opponents: at Lions, vs. Colts, at Cowboys, vs. Seahawks

Arizona’s loss to the Rams dropped it from the No. 1 seed to No. 3 in the NFC. Worse yet, the Cardinals have the toughest remaining schedule of the top three seeds in the NFC.

After a likely breather on the road against the Lions, they host Indianapolis to play a contending Colts team, then head to Dallas the next week. Even the season finale at home vs. the Seahawks isn’t the layup it appeared to be when Russell Wilson was out with a finger injury a few weeks ago.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray has had a terrific season, but he’s going to have trouble competing in the postseason against the likes of Rodgers or Tom Brady on the road.

NFC wild cards

Cowboys (9-4, first in NFC East) No. 4 seed

Rams (9-4, second in NFC West) No. 5 seed

49ers (7-6, third in the NFC West) No. 6 seed

Washington (6-7, second in the NFC East) No. 7 seed

On the bubble

Vikings (6-7, second in NFC North)

Eagles (6-7, third in NFC East)

Falcons (6-7, second in NFC South)

Saints (6-7, third in NFC South)

• • •

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