After squandering a golden opportunity to clinch a third straight NFC South title last Sunday at home, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are giving things another shot in Week 18.
Unlike last week, there's no longer a safety net to catch the team if they once again stumble. There's no nice way of putting it, the Bucs got punched in the mouth by New Orleans last week but sins can be forgiven with a win over Carolina.
Let's zoom out for a brief moment and consider the position we're in, because it absolutely rules.
Tampa Bay was a popular pick to tank for a top draft pick this year, with Peter King infamously calling the Bucs the second-worst team in the NFL after the draft. Rather than phone the season in, Tampa Bay got off to a 3-1 start and is in a position to win the division and host a playoff game as we enter the season's final week.
Not too shabby for a team that wasn't expected to do much this year.
The New York Giants are who everyone thought the Bucs were going to be this year, but the work in proving the doubters wrong is hardly done. What happens in Week 18 will not only define the season but it could determine whether or not jobs are lost this offseason.
Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers make the playoffs?
It's pretty simple: the Bucs easiest path to the playoffs is beating Carolina on Sunday. Not only is that the cleanest path, it's also the one that will make everyone feel a little better about making the playoffs.
Last year the Bucs limped into the playoffs backwards with a losing record and zero confidence. Nothing the team did suggested it was prepared to be serious in the playoffs, but the season also ended with a duck fart loss to the Falcons -- albeit in a meaningless game.
Things haven't been perfect this season but the Bucs have shown they can pick themselves up off the mat. Tampa Bay responded to a 1-6 slump by winning four-in-a-row and surging back into position to win the NFC South.
We didn't see anything close to that sort of fight from the team last year, which is why winning on Sunday is more important than simply punching a playoff ticket. The Bucs would confidently enter the postseason and ride a wave of momentum into a Wild Card matchup that continues to look increasingly winnable.
Of course, the first step is actually making the playoffs.
There is a remote outside chance that the Bucs can make the playoffs even if they don't win on Sunday. If Tampa Bay ties Carolina it opens a potential chaos scenario in which the NFC South can still be won and even a Wild Card spot can be secured.
Buccaneers win NFC South if:
- Bucs beat Panthers
- Bucs/Panthers tie + Saints loss
Buccaneers clinch Wild Card if:
- Bucs-Panthers tie + Seahawks loss + Pakcers loss or tie
There is no way for the Bucs to make the playoffs with a loss, however. All of the crazy scenarios the team would need help in would only trigger if Tampa Bay ties Carolina -- anything less than that and the playoffs are impossible.
Beating a 2-14 team shouldn't be that difficult, but we've seen just how hard things can be for the Bucs this season. Nothing has come easy, but the path to the playoffs -- which would mark the fourth-straight year the Bucs punched a ticket -- is a clear as it gets.