No one said being the defending Super Bowl champion is ever easy, although Tom Brady has made it seem so with his abundant opportunities to test the theory over the past 20 years.
But this has been a challenging season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and never more so than after Sunday night’s loss to the New Orleans Saints and the loss of several key players on offense in a hotly-contest race for the top seed in the NFC with three weeks to play.
Whether the Buccaneers can overtake the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, or Arizona Cardinals for the first-round bye in the NFC Playoffs remains to be seen. But Tampa Bay can at least punch its ticket to the tournament in Week 16, either with a victory over the Carolina Panthers to clinch the NFC South title or some help from the Miami Dolphins or the Los Angeles Rams to unlock a backdoor passage.
The Buccaneers entered Week 16 bruised but poised to clinch a playoff spot
The Buccaneers (10-4) awoke Monday morning still smarting from a 9-0 loss to the Saints that was probably the least of their worries. By Monday afternoon, it was confirmed that star wide receiver Chris Godwin was lost for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. The news wasn’t that much better for two other key players on offense, as running back Leonard Fournette was headed to injured reserve with a hamstring injury and wide receiver Mike Evans was also dealing with a hamstring likely to keep him out of Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers.
The Buccaneers did active Antonio Brown from his three-game suspension for using a fake Covid-19 vaccination card, and his presence should help mitigate the losses elsewhere. Even short-handed, the Buccaneers will take the field Sunday knowing at least one part of their playoff goals is in their control, and the part that requires help in case of a loss has already started breaking their way.
A wild week got a little bit better for the Buccaneers Thursday night
The path to the AFC South is simple for the Buccaneers in Week 16. Beat or tie the struggling Panthers, or get a tie or loss from the Saints against Miami on Monday night, and the Buccaneers can start printing and selling 2021 AFC South Champion T-shirts.
A loss and Saints victory keeps the door slightly ajar for the Saints to steal the division away, requiring them to finish the season 3-0 while the Buccaneers go 0-3. Any deviation from that scenario gives the title to the Buccaneers.
But let’s assume the loss to the Panthers on Sunday and the Saints win. In that scenario, the Buccaneers can still clinch a playoff berth with a Minnesota Vikings loss or tie against the Rams.
Before Thursday night’s game between the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers, there was another variable that need to play out along with the Vikings’ loss or tie to lock the Buccaneers into a playoff berth.
That second outcome came to pass with the Titans’ 20-17 victory. In a roundabout sort of way that makes these playoff possibilities such a joy to calculate, the Buccaneers need the Dallas Cowboys to clinch the NFC East, which apparently triggered some mathematical certainty that results in Tampa Bay also clinching a playoff berth.
The top seed in the conference is still within reach
The Packers (11-3) still lead for the top seed in the NFC, one game ahead of the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Cardinals. The Packers control their own destiny, clinching the top seed by finishing 3-0. The Cowboys, with their current 8-1 conference record, are currently the No. 2 seed and would stay ahead of the Buccaneers as long as a third team, such as the Cardinals forces a three-way tie, superseding the Buccaneers’ head-to-head victory over Dallas because a three-team tie takes the tiebreaker criteria to conference record.
So the Buccaneers will need not only to continue winning but get losses from the Packers and either the Cowboys or Cardinals in order to make the leap to the top spot.