I feel like I need to make the obligatory ‘voice of reason’ post. This weekend was a devastating one for the Buccaneers. On Sunday the Buccaneers showed fans a glimpse of everything they were building towards, handling the rival Atlanta Falcons for 50 minutes, going up 24-14 on the legs of a strong rushing attack and a solid showing from a young defense. And then just as fast, they showed their youth, giving up a big play on a kick return and letting their lead slip away 28-24, putting them three back of the Falcons and two behind the Saints with four games left to play.
Then yesterday afternoon it came out that starting center Jeff Faine and stalwart corner Aqib Talib were lost for the year. Things do look pretty bleak, and people are beginning to toss around terms like “doomed” and “hit a wall.” At Bleacher Report they said that news of these injuries had ‘dashed’ the Bucs playoff hopes. It’s all kind of staggering in light of what was just two weeks ago a very promising 7-3 season.
But I think the rumors of the Buccaneers demise have been greatly exaggerated. As bleak as things may look right now, let’s get some perspective. I’ll get to the point about how impressive this season is to begin with in a moment. But first let’s talk, objectively, about the Buccaneers playoff hopes.
Yes, it’s going to hurt losing Aqib Talib and Jeff Faine. I mentioned yesterday that I thought losing Talib would hurt more, but a great point was made in the comments that EJ Biggers has played very well in spot duty and may be the next in line to start at corner anyways. It’s a blow, but Faine’s loss will be felt equally as well. Its impact will be felt everywhere from the calls at the line on protections to the Bucs ability to run specialized sets like their Wildcat package because of concerns with depth and familiarity. It’s definitely going to be an uphill battle.
But this team fights. They didn’t quit at the end of their 3-13 season, as was evidenced by their resurgent 2-1 finish and their road win at New Orleans. They’re not going to quit this year either. Say what you want about Raheem Morris but his guys play for him. And they embrace the under-dog role with him too. They have all season, so I don’t expect it to be any different now. They were expected to win nothing and he got them to buy into his system and their potential and surprise everyone. So they lost two of their starters, write the Bucs off, they’re the youngest team, they just got dealt a major blow, I get it. But don’t expect this Bucs team to agree. Expect them to regroup and look to bounce back. Expect their coaches to continue to find ways to win games. Who knows how it will fare, but don’t expect anything less than Bucs best shot for the rest of the year.
And the deck is not as stacked as you might think. The Bucs remaining schedule takes them to Washington (5-7) to face a struggling Redskins team with some locker-room turmoil, then they have home dates against the (2-10) Detroit Lions and direct from Seattle (making an insanely long flight) the (6-6) Seahawks. The Bucs have to handle business, but they can win all three of these games.
Again, criticize the Bucs for not beating any teams with winning records, but they handle their business when they’re facing an inferior opponent. It’s not going to be easy, it’s never easy to win in the NFL (ask the Patriots, who lost a head-scratcher to Cleveland Browns earlier this year yet pounded the 9-2 Jets 45-3 last night). But so far the Bucs have demonstrated the ability to win the games they ought to win. If the Bucs can take care of business they will be 10-5 going into a huge game against the Saints in the Superdome in week 17.
That could be a winner-takes-playoffs game. To paint a better picture let’s look at the rest of the competition in the NFC Wildcard Hunt:
Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) They’re vying for the NFC East title with the Giants who have the same record. Their remaining games are against Dallas (twice, this week and in week 17) and then a road date to play the Giants and a home game against Minnesota. Currently the Eagles are one game up, but it’s possible the Bucs will have a shot passing them with a conference record tie-breaker (both teams are 5-3 in the NFC currently).
New York Giants (8-4) Another team in the hunt for the NFC East Crown. The hope is the NFC East cannibalizes itself and the Bucs can sneak in on a weak remaining schedule. If they win out they will have no problem, if they go 3-1 they’ll need help. The Giants’ remaining games are against at the Vikings, home against the Eagles, at Green Bay and at Washington. The Giants have a better conference record than the Bucs, so it may behoove Bucs fans to pull for the Giants to hand the Eagles and Packers at least one loss and win the East. That would be best case scenario for the Bucs.
Chicago Bears (9-3) As bizarre as it is to say, I think the Bears end this season 10-6 at best. They have road dates with Minnesota and Green Bay (week 17) and home dates against the Jets and Patriots. I just don’t think the Bears are better than the Packers, Jets or Pats. However, with a (current) 7-3 conference record they could be a spoiler in the event they do collapse and the Bucs don’t win out. It would be best for the Bucs if the Bears stayed in first and beat the Packers.
Green Bay Packers (8-4) The Packers have a snoozer against the Lions next weekend, but then travel to New England, host the Giants and finish with the Bears. They are a half game better than the Bucs in conference, but could easily lose a couple games and let the Bucs in. Best case scenario the Packers lose to both the Bears and Giants, it’s likely they could lose to the Patriots.
New Orleans Saints (9-3) The Saints finish the season with a tough stretch, they face the Rams at home next week, but then finish with trips to Baltimore, Atlanta and then at home with the Bucs. There’s no guarantees they couldn’t have the same record as the Bucs in their week 17 showdown and after their debacle against Cleveland don’t be surprised if St. Louis gives them a game on Sunday.
So let’s break it down
If the Bucs win their next three they will be coming into week 17 facing a major match-up with New Orleans. It’s very possible, based on the remaining schedules that the Bucs will actually be in a position to control their own destiny, and still get in with a loss and some help.
At that point Tampa will be 10-5, with an 8-3 divisional record. That’s going to be one of the best in the NFC. This is, of course, provided the Bucs handle their business the next three weeks. Philadelphia, Green Bay, New York, Chicago and New Orleans, having played considerably tougher schedules, and in some cases each other, will not all be finishing 3-0 over that stretch. Either New York or Philly will be no better than 10-5, the Giants have a date with the Packers too. The Bears will be playing the Packers that same day (during week 17). Without drawing you an intricate table you get what I’m saying.
If the Bucs win and go to 11-5, with a 9-3 NFC record they will go to the playoffs. It’s a tall order, and New Orleans is not a fun team to have to try to knock out of the playoffs. But keep in mind the Bucs knocked off the Saints in New Orleans at the end of last season. Yeah, they got licked the first time, but this is a different Bucs team than it was in week 6.
The talk about the Bucs playoff hopes being dashed are ridiculous. Their destiny is right in front of them, it’s in their own hands. They literally just have to win. Win the next four and you’re in. Go 3-1, and it’s actually still very possible.
And again, perspective, most “experts” predicted 3-6 wins for the Bucs this year. They were the youngest team in the league, with the youngest coach in the league and yet here we are on December 7th, talking about their (still very legitimate) playoff chances. Isn’t that what the fans wanted? It’s probably more than we could have hoped for, meaningful games in December (and possibly into January). The sky’s not falling, the path ahead just got a lot more difficult, but the Bucs don’t just have a shot, they could have the inside track.