Despite dropping a hard-fought contest to the Falcons, 24-23, on Sunday, the Buccaneers didn't lose any ground in the chase for a playoff berth in the NFC, as the Seahawks and Vikings were also beaten, failing to improve their respective playoff positions.
Tampa Bay now sits at 6-5 and are still one game behind Seattle for the final NFC wild card spot.
When the 2012 season began even the most optimistic Bucs fan would have to admit that the thought of Tampa Bay in the playoff mix halfway heading into the final month of the season was a bit of a reach. But Greg Schiano’s never-say-die Buccaneers are without question legitimate playoff contenders.
The Buccaneers still have several tough match-ups left over their final five games, including facing the NFC South-leading Falcons once more, a road trip to Denver and a road rematch with the Saints, a home game with Philadelphia, before closing out the regular season at home against the Rams.
The current division leaders are Atlanta (10-1) in the NFC South, Chicago (8-3) in the NFC North, San Francisco (6-2-1, game in progress) in the NFC West and the New York Giants (6-4, game later on Sunday) in the NFC East.
Below is a look at the teams Tampa By may need to fend off, or at the very least will be competing against, down the stretch in order to qualify for the playoffs as a wild card.
NFC Wild Card Playoff Contenders (2 spots available)
CURRENT 5TH SEED: Green Bay Packers (7-3)
The Packers, who play late on Sunday, are in a battle with the Chicago Bears (8-3) for the division lead. Many feel the Packers could overtake the Bears and become the eventual NFC North champs. Regardless, it appears either the Packers or the Bears will be one of the NFC’s wild card representatives when the 2012 regular season concludes.
The Packers haven't looked like the same team over the last three seasons and have been beset with key injuries, but are still one of the more talented teams in the NFC.
New York Giants (away), Minnesota (home), Detroit (home), Chicago (away), Tennessee (home), Minnesota (away)
CURRENT SIXTH SEED: Seattle Seahawks (6-5)
The Seahawks, led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, remain ahead of Tampa Bay based on conference record. Seattle could have padded its lead but lost on Sunday at Miami. Wilson has struggled statistically for much of the season but continues to do just enough to win.
One would assume the Buccaneers would have an advantage over Seattle based on quarterback play, however it isn’t a given. Seattle has a slight edge over Tampa Bay based on its 4-4 conference record as opposed to the Bucs' conference record, which is currently 3-5.
Chicago (away), Arizona (home), Buffalo (away), San Francisco (home), St. Louis (home)
FIRST TEAM OUTSIDE THE PLAYOFFS: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5)
The Buccaneers started the season 1-3 heading into their bye week, but have won five out of their last seven contests, including a four-game stretch before Sunday's loss, that has put Tampa Bay squarely in the NFC playoff picture. The Bucs entered Sunday's game three games behind the NFC South division-leading Falcons, but with Sunday's 24-23 loss they now are basically out of the NFC South race.
At this point, the Buccaneers focus will be on keeping pace with the wild card contenders and hoping they can find away to end the season in the postseason as a wild card.Remaining Schedule:
Denver (away), Philadelphia (home), New Orleans (away), St. Louis (home), Atlanta (away)
SECOND TEAM OUTSIDE THE PLAYOFFS: Minnesota Vikings (6-5)
After a fast start the Vikings have cooled down and had lost three in a row before getting back on the winning track last week with a win. On Sunday, the Vikings fell further behind in the NFC North race with a 24-10 loss to the Chicago Bears. Minnesota QB Christian Ponder has struggled through the middle of the schedule, but a team with Adrian Peterson can’t be counted out.
The schedule down the stretch for the Vikings may be the toughest of any of the wild card contenders.
The Buccaneers do hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings, courtesy of their 36-17 victory in Week 8 in Minneapolis.
Green Bay (away), Chicago (home), St. Louis (away), Houston (away), Green Bay (home)
OTHER TEAMS OUTSIDE THE PLAYOFFS: Dallas Cowboys (5-6)
The Cowboys' playoff chances took a big hit after losing to the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving, 38-31. With the erratic play of quarterback Tony Romo and head coach Jason Garrett on the hot seat – and with owner Jerry Jones breathing down their necks – things don’t look too promising in Big D.
The Cowboys may be one of the most talented teams in the NFC but have a recent history of underachieving, and there is nothing to indicate the trend doesn’t continue in 2012.
Washington Philadelphia (home), Cincinnati (away), Pittsburgh (home), New Orleans (home), Washington (away)New Orleans Saints (5-5)
Of all the teams the Buccaneers will need to stay ahead of, the Saints may be the biggest threat. After a 0-4 start, New Orleans has won five of its last six, including knocking off the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons last Sunday.
The Saints, like the Buccaneers, tend to give up a ton of points, but still have an offense that can score from anywhere on the field. The Saints have already beaten the Bucs once earlier this season and the Week 15 matchup in the Superdome against Tampa Bay could have huge playoff implications.
San Francisco – in progress (home), Atlanta (away), New York Giants (away), Tampa Bay (home), Dallas (away, Carolina (home)
The Buccaneers and their fans still must pay attention to the Redskins, who defeated Tampa Bay earlier this season. By beating the Cowboys on Thursday, combined with losses by Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Seattle, the Redskins are still clinging to a chance to qualify for the playoffs.
The Redskins also hold a tie-breaker over the Bucs with their head-to-head, 24-22 win back in September.Remaining Schedule:
New York Giants (home), Baltimore (home), Cleveland (away), Philadelphia (away), Dallas (home)
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