Mon, 06 Feb 2023

Playoff Push 2022: Bucs Strengthen Division Lead

Buccaneers
07 Dec 2022, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersAll four NFC division leaders prevailed in Week 13, with the Bucs' late comeback against New Orleans putting them more than a game clear in the SouthScott Smith

Week 13 was a good one for the division leaders, though an actual clinched playoff spot remained elusive. The Eagles beat the Titans handily to maintain their two-game lead in the East over the red-hot Cowboys. The Vikings kept pace with an impressive win over the Jets and the 49ers survived the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo to slow down the streaking Dolphins and stay a game up on the Seahawks in the West.

And then there were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were down by 13 points to the Saints when they punted away with seven minutes left in regulation on Monday Night Football. With a loss, the Buccaneers would have trudged into Week 14 with a sub-.500 record and an increasingly uncomfortable half-game lead in the NFC South. Instead, Tom Brady's record 44th fourth-quarter comeback gave the team a 1.5-game cushion with five weeks to play.

In terms of the overall conference picture, the Eagles and Vikings did what they had to do in their playoff-clinching scenarios but didn't get the help they needed from other teams. Minnesota needed the Lions to lose but Detroit's offense was nearly unstoppable against the Jaguars so the Vikings' first division title since 2017 will have to wait another week. The Eagles needed a combination of additional results to clinch a playoff spot (but notably not yet a division title), and while the Washington tie with New York was on that list of favorable outcomes the wins by San Francisco and Seattle were not.

Here's how the NFC playoff race stands after 13 weeks:

1. Philadelphia (11-1), NFC East Leader

The Eagles' top goal at this point is to hold on to that number-one seed and get the only first-round bye when the playoffs start. Thanks to their win over the Vikings in Week Two, they essentially have a two-game lead in that quest, and it is unlikely that anyone else in the conference field is going to catch them. It looks like the NFC playoffs will be going through Philly (which brings up mixed emotions for Buccaneers fans). There's a Week 16 showdown looming in Dallas, but the worse the Eagles can do is split that series. It's hard to imagine Dallas having a shot at overtaking them for the title if they don't win that game. Otherwise, Philadelphia's remaining opponents are Chicago, New Orleans and the Giants twice. Not exactly a murderer's row.

2. Minnesota (10-2), NFC North Leader

The Vikings refused to fall prey to the Mike White Magic, but they had to turn him and the Jets away near the goal line on two frantic drives at the end to cling to the 27-22 victory. There isn't a team with a winning record left on their schedule, though the trip to Detroit next weekend looks a little spicier after the Lions' explosion against Jacksonville. Winning next Sunday at Ford Field would obviously clinch the NFC North title. The Vikings are also well set up in the tiebreaker department if for some reason it has to go past the first option. They're 6-2 in conference play, their .476 strength of victory is second only to the Cowboys' .505 and their .534 strength of schedule is the best among all the teams in the conference with a winning record.

3. San Francisco (8-4), NFC West Leader

A relatively easy 33-17 win over a Miami team that rode a five-game winning streak into town should have had San Francisco feeling pretty comfortable by Saturday evening, but that victory came at a significant cost. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was unexpectedly thrust back into that role after a Week Two Trey Lance injury, suffered a broken foot at the end of the 49ers' first drive of the afternoon and is done for the season. Brock Purdy, the last player selected in the 2022 draft, performed admirably in the win but it's hard to be realistically as confident in the untested rookie as the team was in Garoppolo. The 49ers' next three games are all against division leaders or teams with winning records, beginning with the Buccaneers this Sunday in California.

4. Tampa Bay (6-6), NFC South Leader

Whew. It took a miracle but the Buccaneers have now won three of their last four and have some breathing room in the division after the Steelers were able to nip the Falcons, 19-16, on Sunday afternoon. It's extremely unlikely that Tampa Bay could rise as far as the second seed in the conference, given the Vikings' 10th win on Sunday, but the third spot is within reach, particularly since the Bucs will get a direct shot at the NFC West-leading 49ers next Sunday. The Bucs are two games behind the 49ers but could cut that lead in half and gain a head-to-head tiebreaker with a win in Santa Clara. As for the NFC South race, the Bucs' crazy win on Monday night ran their record within the division to 3-1, while Atlanta (5-8) is at 1-3. The Bucs and Falcons will finish the season together in Atlanta in Week 18.

5. Dallas (9-3), Wild Card #1

The Cowboys are close to being locked into the number five seed. If they don't manage to catch the Eagles for the NFC East crown, they are virtually certain to take one of the Wild Card spots, and it would take something of a collapse for them to give up the top slot of those three. The Cowboys have averaged nearly 40 points a game while winning four of their last five (the defense has helped some with that scoreboard rolling, but still), and their next two opponents are Houston and Jacksonville. Those aren't exactly teams that look like they will finish out the season strong. FiveThirtyEight.com gives Dallas only a 20% chance of winning the division but a greater than 99% chance of qualifying for the playoffs. As we noted last week, if the Buccaneers can hold on to their NFC South lead until they end, they're probably looking at a rematch with the Cowboys, whom they beat in Dallas in Week One.

6. N.Y. Giants (7-4-1), Wild Card #2

The Commanders could have leap-frogged the Giants into this six seed had they beaten their division rivals on Sunday, but instead the game ended in a 20-20. Interestingly, that tie didn't hurt the Giants' standing in the playoff race but it did drop Washington out of the top seven, thanks to Seattle's win. New York has now failed to secure a victory three weeks in a row and coming up next are the Eagles and a rematch with the Commanders, who will be coming off a restorative bye week. The Giants also have a game in Minnesota and a second meeting with the Eagles down the stretch. If New York manages to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016, they will have earned it.

7. Seattle (7-5), Wild Card #3

Through a pair of losses to the Buccaneers and Raiders, sandwiched around a bye week, the Seahawks lost first their hold on the NFC West lead and then their spot in the top seven. They were outside looking in a week ago, but they were able to take care of an undermanned Rams team in Week 13 and things suddenly look better. Seattle is still getting 79% playoff odds from FiveThirtyEight.com, and they might think the 49ers are ripe for the picking with Garoppolo going down. They'll get one more tune-up against the 4-8 Panthers this week before getting their big showdown against San Francisco in Week 15. The 49ers took the first meeting in Week Two, 27-7.

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On the outside...

8. Washington (7-5-1)

The Commanders now head into a bye and will have extra time to think about how to get one more point against the Giants than they did on Sunday. Washington would have been close to locking down a playoff spot (not technically but for all practical purposes) if they could have simply found that extra point in Week 13. The Commanders and Giants will meet again in Week 15, and New York has to battle the Eagles in the interim while Washington can rest up. The post-bye schedule is no cakewalk, however: Giants, at 49ers, Browns, at Cowboys.

9. Detroit (5-7)

The Lions playoff odds on FiveThirtyEight.com are running at about 8%. So you're saying there's a chance! It's kind of remarkable they're not at zero by now, because this team was 1-6 at the end of October. It's only loss since is a 28-25 barnburner with the powerful Bills. It's still a steep climb for Detroit and they'll need a couple of teams to fall off, but it should be fun watching them try. A final three of Panthers, Bears and Packers isn't terribly daunting.

10-11. Green Bay (5-8), Atlanta (5-8)

No, there is virtually no chance for either of these teams to earn a Wild Card berth, but Atlanta is still very much alive in the NFC South hunt and if we're including them we'll include the other 5-8 team to be thorough. The good news for the Falcons and the Packers is that they finally get their bye in Week 14, giving them a shot to rest up for a chance to run the table and sneak into the postseason.

What Lies Ahead for Tampa Bay:

The Buccaneers had across the country to take on the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers have won five straight and have emerged as serious conference title defenders, though now they'll have to chase that goal without Jimmy Garoppolo. The good news for the 49ers, and the challenging part for the Buccaneers' next weekend, is that they have what is likely the best defense in the NFL.

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