After blowing an opportunity to secure their third consecutive NFC South title this past Sunday afternoon against the New Orleans Saints, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a perfect opportunity to make amends this Sunday afternoon against the league-worst Carolina Panthers.
A win, which ESPN FPI gives them around a 72% chance of pulling off, guarantees the Buccaneers the NFC South title, the No. 4 seed, and a home game in the Wild Card round of the playoffs as a 9-8 team.
A loss eliminates the team from playoff contention, as the division would then go to the winner of the game between the Saints and the Atlanta Falcons (or, in the event of a tie, the Saints).
Buccaneers can make the NFL Playoffs without a win in Week 18
First and foremost, they would win the division as long as the Saints don’t beat the Falcons. If the Falcons beat the Saints, both teams would be 8-9 and finish behind a 8-8-1 Bucs team.
If the teams tie and the Saints end up at 8-8-1, the Bucs and Saints would also both be 3-2-1 within the NFC South. The Bucs, however, would be 7-4-1 in common games, vs. the Saints’ 5-6-1 mark.
Then there’s the other possibility: a Wild Card appearance. Even if the Saints beat the Falcons to take the NFC South, the Buccaneers can still secure the No. 7 seed if they tie the Panthers and get help.
That help would include a Seattle Seahawks loss to the Arizona Cardinals, which would drop them to 8-9, and anything other than a Green Bay Packers win over the Chicago Bears. If both the Bucs and Packers finish 8-8-1, then the Bucs get the head-to-head tiebreaker due to their Week 15 win at Lambeau Field.
If all three teams were to tie, they would all be 6-5-1 within the NFC, and Green Bay would ultimately win the tiebreaker due to strength of victory, as the head-to-head result between them and Tampa Bay would no longer matter.
If just Seattle and Tampa Bay were to be 8-8-1, Seattle would own the tiebreaker due to a better winning percentage in common games. That is why Seattle would need to lose, whereas Green Bay would simply need to not win.
All things considered, the likelihood of a tie is probably less than that of Tom Brady coming out of retirement to lead the Buccaneers to another Super Bowl next month, so the Bucs’ best bet is to take care of business and beat the two-win Panthers for a second time this season on Sunday.