Now that the Buccaneers are 2-2 and a quarter of the way through the regular season, it's time to check in on the rest of the NFC. What does Tampa Bay's path to the playoffs look like? Let's size up the competition (playoff odds courtesy of Football Outsiders).
• • •
"So you're telling me there's a chance!"
THE LLOYD CHRISTMAS TIER
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (0.1 percent chance of making the playoffs) and NEW YORK GIANTS (0.5 percent)
No team has made the playoffs after an 0-5 start.
CHICAGO BEARS (0.6 percent)
"Hey, Mitch. We know you started only 13 games at North Carolina, but we're thinking Week 5 is a good time for you to make your NFL debut. Why? It's the next step in our very meticulous quarterback development plan (receivers not included). Monday Night Football. Against a desperate division rival. Everyone will be watching. Go get 'em!"
The wheels haven't completely fallen off yet, but they will. When the Bears planned to draft Trubisky in April, coach John Fox reportedly was among the last to know. One would hope he's the first to know when he's fired.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (4.4 percent)
It makes sense that we're eliminating the Bears, Giants and 49ers, but the Cardinals? Yes, they're 2-3, but their record obscures reality: An aging offensive core, led by 37-year-old Carson Palmer, is fading quickly. When Arizona made its Super Bowl run in 2015, it scored a franchise-record 489 points. This season, it's on pace to score about half that. Its wins have come against the Andrew Luck-less Colts (16-13 in overtime) and the everything-less 49ers (18-15).
Palmer's offensive line might be accelerating his decline. The Cardinals have allowed the most quarterback hits (50) and second-most sacks (19).
• • •
"Flying somewhere? I saw your luggage. Then when I noticed the airline ticket, I put 2 and 2 together."
THE CLEAR-CUT DIVISION LEADERS
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (79.9 percent)
Carson Wentz — eighth in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings and third in ESPN's QBR — is looking like the real deal. The key to the Eagles offense so far: Wentz's success on third down. He leads the NFL in completions (37), yards per attempt (11.0) and touchdowns (six).
Philly's odds are high because they're 2-0 in division games and 3-0 in conference games. One reason to be skeptical, however, might be their early season schedule. The Eagles' four wins have come against teams who are a combined 5-14, though they did beat Washington and Arizona convincingly.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (69.6 percent)
Can you think of a quarterback you'd rather have over Aaron Rodgers with the game — or the season — on the line? The Packers' comeback against the Cowboys on Sunday was impressive but, in a way, routine. Rallies are kinda their thing. Remember: They were 4-6 last season before they ripped off six straight wins to claim the NFC North title.
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Unfortunately for the Bucs, the Packers are on their schedule — a December 3 trip to Lambeau. They've lost 13 of their past 14 games in Green Bay, and the margin of victory in that 2005 win was one point.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (61.7 percent)
The lone blemish on the Panthers' record is a Week 3 loss to the Saints at home. They're 3-0 on the road, however, with key wins over the Patriots (who beat the Bucs) and the Lions (one of the teams the Bucs could be fighting for a wild-card spot).
A note about 4-1 teams: Since 1990, teams that have won at least four of their first five games have reached the playoffs 80 percent of the time. Put another way: It's really hard to bungle a situation this favorable. Teams that start 4-1 or better can be average the rest of the regular season and still make the playoffs.
• • •
"Anti-quitsies, you're it, quitsies, no anti-quitsies, no startsies!"
TEAMS THAT WON'T QUIT
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (66.2 percent) and LOS ANGELES RAMS (54.9 percent)
This NFC West race has serious implications for the Bucs. Both teams sit at 3-2, with the Seahawks holding the advantage by virtue of their win over the Rams in Los Angeles on Sunday. They're not flawless (Seattle's offensive line and Los Angeles' rush defense are causes for concern), but they're formidable. Both rank in the top 10 of Football Outsiders' efficiency rankings.
Because of their soft schedules — Cardinals (twice), 49ers (twice), the Giants and the AFC South — the Seahawks and Rams should pile up wins. Whoever doesn't win the division stands a more than reasonable chance of landing a wild-card berth. Games to monitor if you're a Bucs fan: Seahawks at Giants this Sunday, Rams at Giants in Week 9, Rams at Vikings in Week 11 and Rams against the Saints in Week 12.
ATLANTA FALCONS (57.8 percent)
For the Bucs to reach the playoffs, they're going to need the Falcons to stumble. There's some reason to think that could happen, as Atlanta's record is a bit of a mirage. They're one dropped pass and one overturned goal line call away from being 1-3. All that matters, of course, is the "W," and thanks to key conference wins (Packers and Lions), the Falcons hold a significant but not insurmountable edge over the Bucs.
• • •
"We gotta get out of this town! Someplace warm. A place where the beer flows like wine. Where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I'm talking about a little place called Aspen."
MEDIOCRE TEAMS DREAMING BIG
DETROIT LIONS (49.5 percent)
The 3-2 Lions aren't doing the Bucs any favors. When they lose, it's to the wrong teams (Falcons and Panthers). The Bucs will have a chance take matters into their own hands, however, when the teams meet Dec. 10 in Tampa. They'll need that one, if only to spare us from watching the Lions, the Bengals of the NFC, lose in the first round of the playoffs.
WASHINGTON (49.2 percent)
It doesn't seem right. Team lands franchise quarterback. Team refuses to commit to quarterback. Team wins games anyway. Yet here we are with Washington. Whether it deserves to win is irrelevant. It might be the most balanced team in this tier, and because of that, it should stay in the thick of the wild-card race all season. Keep an eye on a three-game stretch in November: at Seattle, home vs. Vikings and at New Orleans.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (39.9 percent)
The Bucs' 34-17 loss to the Vikings in Week 3 hurt, and it might continue to hurt if Minnesota keeps winning. And what reason is there to think it won't? It might be the only team in the NFL that's impervious to changes at quarterback. In Sam Bradford's stead, Case Keenum has been, well, Case Keenum has been good. He ranks second in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings and fifth in QBR.
One other advantage for the Vikings: They get the Browns in Week 8 (in London) and the Bears in Week 17, and by then Chicago should be in full-blown dumpster fire mode.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (29.9 percent)
Wait, the Saints are playing defense now? Oh, that Week 5 shutout was against Jay Cutler and the Dolphins? Nevermind. Even after that 20-0 win, New Orleans' defense still ranks 23rd in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings.
It has been awhile since the Bucs swept a season series against the Saints. The last time: 2007, which also was the last time they made the playoffs. The teams meet in New Orleans in Week 9 and Tampa in Week 17.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (21.1 percent)
There aren't very many "easy" wins on the Bucs' schedule. Other than the Cardinals, none of their opponents the rest of the way has a record below .500. (Even the Jets are 3-2!) A stretch that starts in mid November is especially brutal. That's when Tampa Bay will play three straight road games (at Miami, at Atlanta and at Green Bay).
Assume 10 wins is enough to clinch a playoff berth. Say the Bucs split their division games. That puts them at five losses. If we add the Packers game to the loss column (ESPN gives Green Bay a 70.6 percent chance of winning that game), that puts them at six. In this scenario, the Bucs have to beat the Cardinals, Bills, Jets, Dolphins and Lions. We've seen over the first quarter of the season that they have the talent to do that, but their inconsistent execution leaves plenty of room for doubt.
DALLAS COWBOYS (14.6 percent)
While the Cowboys already have lost as many games this season as they lost all of last season, don't count them out yet. Regression has hit them hard. They were 7-2 in one-score games last season but are 0-2 (Rams and Packers) this season.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.