Things are never easy in the NFC South, and rarely are they pretty. Even last year, with Tom Brady in the division, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to the playoffs as division champions with a losing record and it's not the first time such a thing has happened.
Carolina went to the playoffs back in 2014 with a losing record, and to the Panthers credit managed to win its Wild Card matchup over Arizona.
Tampa Bay wasn't so lucky, getting blown out by the Dallas Cowboys last year in the first round which is something that has fans worried about what might happen if the team makes it again. It's likely that the Cowboys -- or whoever finishes in second in the NFC East -- are the first-round matchup again, but the Bucs have to make the playoffs before we even have that conversation.
Sunday is an opportunity to take a big step toward doing that with a huge tiebreaker on the line with the Atlanta Falcons.
Tiebreaker scenarios between Buccaneers and Falcons
All of this tiebreaker stuff isn't unique to the Bucs, as every team around the league is hoping to collect them like Infinity Stones.
Three key factors determine the tiebreaker at the end of the season:
- Head-to-head record
- Record vs. division
- Record vs. common opponents
Winning the head-to-head series is the easiest way to secure the tiebreaker as it renders all other factors irrelevant. If teams split their head-to-head matchups then things fall to which team has the best record against division opponents, and if that's also tied then things are determined by record against common opponents on each team's schedule.
All of this factors into the Bucs-Falcons tiebreaker scenarios this season.
One leg up the Buccaneers have right now is in comparing records against common opponents. The Falcons have losses to the Titans and Vikings, two teams Tampa Bay has already beaten.
The Bucs already have a slight lead in overall records against common opponents but a win over the Jaguars would not only take them over the top but give them a third key victory over a team Atlanta lost to this year.
Green Bay Packers
If the Buccaneers win Week 14
A win over the Falcons on Sunday would get both to 6-7 and propel the Bucs into first place in the NFC South. Even though both teams will own 3-1 division records, and the Falcons beat them earlier this year, Tampa Bay will leapfrog Atlanta thanks to owning the tiebreaker on record against common opponents.
Things will tighten up over the last four games, as the Bucs and Falcons each play the Panthers and Saints one more time. How those games go might further determine the NFC South race, since a loss by either team might cause them to cough up the tiebreaker.
If the Buccaneers lose Week 14
This is the nightmare scenario, as it essentially ends the Bucs season. A loss would mean Tampa Bay's chances of making the playoffs drops to around 11 percent and the number of things that need to happen to reverse course is almost too much to handle.
Not that the Bucs have much control over their own destiny, but a loss would ensure they'll need serious help. The only path to the playoffs would be by punching a ticket as a division winner, as any hope of making the Wild Card is basically out the window.
The Bucs would also need the Falcons to lose at least three of their last four games with the ideal situation being that Atlanta loses out.