Good morning to all, and a Happy New Year for 2017. It is still early, and as a general warning, there is math ahead.
As the Bucs close their 2016 season this afternoon, attention will quickly redirect to the 2017 draft, and we're here to answer another simple-but-complicated question: Where will the Bucs be drafting this April?
Before today's games begin, the Bucs would be picking at No. 18 in the first round. For background, the NFL draft order goes in reverse order of standings, so the team with the worst record gets to pick first -- Cleveland, at 1-14, has the top pick right now. What gets tricky is when teams finish with the same record -- there are currently four teams at 7-8 and four (including the Bucs) at 8-7, and if those ties persist, the NFL determines draft order by looking at each team's strength of schedule, or how its 16 opponents fare collectively, with the team with the worse opponents' record picking first.
So a single win or loss in this 7-8/8-7 group can change a team's draft position considerably. If the Bucs win, they likely pick later in the draft; if they lose, they have the consolation of a potentially higher draft pick. From picking at 18 this morning, the Bucs can go either direction -- there's a ridiculously tiny chance they make the playoffs, and then of course they could pick as late as No. 32 (smile when you read this), and if enough things go the other way, the Bucs could pick as high as No. 15.
We're getting into Extremely Obsessive Fan Territory here, but if you're solely interested in the Bucs picking as high in the draft as possible -- a reasonable longterm hope for some fans -- we can lay that out for you.
How do the Bucs pick 15th? Of course they lose to Carolina, and they want the other 8-7 teams (Tennessee, Baltimore, Denver) to win (all three are favored to do so), though they'd draft ahead of Denver either way on tiebreakers. That gets them past the Titans and Ravens and up to 16th, and if the Saints can foolishly beat the Falcons, the Bucs would pass them to pick 15th. To try to get any higher than 15th, you need the Vikings to beat the Bears, so they're 8-8 with the Bucs. That gets us to ... insanely intricate tiebreaker fun!
Right now, the Bucs' 16 opponents are exactly 120-120 on the season, while the Vikings' opponents are 119-121. You'd think with 16 games, 16 outcomes, lots can change, right? Nah. The final week of the NFL season is all divisional games, which means 12 of those 16 have a net-zero outcome on overall strength of schedule. (For the Bucs, they've played the Saints and Falcons twice each, so no matter who wins between them, it adds two wins and two losses to the total. Same is true with 1-1 outcomes for the Chiefs-Chargers, Rams-Cardinals, Broncos-Raiders and 49ers-Seahawks games.)
So beyond your own game, you have two games for each team that shift a SOS tiebreaker -- the Bucs want Chicago to lose to the Vikings (you already were pulling for this to get into this tiebreaker in the first place) and they want Dallas to lose to the Eagles (Philadelphia is actually favored, with Dallas expected to sit some starters at some point). Problem is, to get into this tiebreaker, you needed Carolina to beat the Bucs, which adds two wins to the Bucs' SOS -- the Bucs opponents finish at 128-128, and the Vikings opponents finish no better than 127-129, so the Bucs lose out on a single outcome out of 256 games. When the Eagles (who have Minnesota's first-rounder from the Sam Bradford trade) pick right ahead of the Bucs and take the guy you wanted (say, a speed receiver), you'll remember this and weep uncontrollably.
Just to reiterate: If the Jaguars aren't stopped on fourth down to lose 19-14 to the Chiefs on Nov. 7 and instead win, that change alone flips the draft order for the Bucs and Eagles in this scenario. I say this just so you're worried next year about the outcome of every seemingly inconsequential game, every week, for all of 2017.
One super-close flip you can pull for and feel better about the world we live in: The Bucs and Ravens are both 8-7; the Bucs' opponents are 120-120, the Ravens' opponents are 119-120-1. By that tiny half-game margin, the Ravens pick 17th right now and the Bucs 18th. So if both teams win today or both lose today, the Bucs can vault ahead by leapfrogging them in those two games that matter for each to the SOS tiebreaker.
You need the Raiders to upset the Broncos in Denver, or the Jaguars to upset the Colts in Indy, padding Baltimore's SOS; if the Raiders and Jaguars get more wins today than the Cowboys and Bears do, then the Bucs flip ahead of the Ravens on tiebreaker if they finish with the same overall record. Woohoo, right?