It's already been a wild roller coaster ride of a season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
From an offseason that most assumed was a precursor to a rebuilding year, to a fast 3-1 start, to three consecutive losses, it has often been hard to tell exactly where the Bucs rank in the NFL landscape. However, now feels like enough time has elapsed to see this Buccaneers team for what it is.
After eight weeks it seems like the Bucs are a decent team that is fighting to distinguish itself from the middle of the pack and make the postseason. Good, but not truly bad; flawed, but not fatally so.
With Tampa Bay beginning its mini-bye following Thursday’s matchup against the Bills, there is time to look forward to what the rest of the season might hold. If the Buccaneers are still serious about wanting to make the playoffs -- something that feels is internally the message -- which upcoming games are the most crucial to win?
3 most important games left on Buccaneers schedule
Week 14: vs. Atlanta Falcons
This is a no-brainer.
Atlanta is the only team that the Buccaneers have lost to that isn’t generally considered a Super Bowl contender. They’re also a division rival with one-half of an important tiebreaker, making this game both winnable and crucial for the Buccaneers’ hopes of making the playoffs.
Tampa Bay's easiest path to the playoff field is by winning a weak NFC South, and evening the series against Atlanta should be something on the Bucs’ minds during the back half of the season. Winning this game isn't just a goal, it's critical to saving the season.
Week 9: at Houston Texans
The Texans offer the first real chance to see how Tampa Bay bounces back against other presumed middle-of-the-road teams.
So far, the Buccaneers have mostly played bad teams (Saints, Vikings, Bears) or really good teams (Eagles, Lions, Bills). The Texans are a good litmus test for how far this Bucs team will be able to go. If we can handle Houston, and prove that we are closer to the top of the NFL than the bottom, a lot of the rest of the schedule (Tennessee, Indianapolis, Carolina, Green Bay) will seem a lot less challenging.
Tampa Bay has had measuring stick games this season, and the Houston game unexpectedly falls under that category. It's going to potentially give us a glimpse into where exactly this team is.
Week 15: Green Bay Packers
What once looked like a potential flex option is now a game that could be nothing more than a battle for draft picks.
Admittedly, the Packers haven’t looked very good through the first half of the season. That’s never been more apparent than in their recent loss to the Broncos. But don’t count out Mat LaFleur and company, especially with the return of Aaron Jones to boost the offense again.
The Packers could very well make a play for one of the last of the NFC’s wild card positions, which makes beating them all the more important for a Buccaneers team also challenging for a postseason berth. It could also end up being an important game on the flip side of where the two teams want to be, as draft positioning could be on everyone's mind by the time this game rolls around.