After those five, a ridiculous six teams are either tied for the final playoff spot or one game out: Washington, Dallas, Minnesota, New Orleans, Seattle and Tampa Bay. With respect to the first five teams mentioned, the Buccaneers have to be considered the current favorite for the coveted No. 6 seed.
There are plenty of reasons why this is the case. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the spectacular play of rookie running back Doug Martin, the new and improved skinny Josh Freeman and the hard-nosed approach brought in by new coach Greg Schiano.
And while those are the reasons Tampa Bay deserves the final playoff spot, they aren't why the Bucs will win it. So with that being the case, why will Tampa be playing in January?
It all comes down to one thing: the schedule.
The Buccaneers, barring something crazy, are going to reach at least nine wins. While difficult road challenges await them in Denver and New Orleans, two easy home games against St. Louis and Philadelphia should prove to be almost automatic victories, and a Week 17 date with the Falcons should prove meaningless for Atlanta assuming they have clinched the No. 1 seed.
Now let's go through the remaining candidates. Division rival New Orleans still has to go to Atlanta for a game the Falcons will care about, followed by a trip to New York to play the Giants in cold weather, then two potential playoff elimination games against Tampa and Dallas before a home game with Carolina. The Saints would need a 4-1 record in that stretch to match the Bucs. That's not likely.
Washington and Dallas? They too have an elimination game in Week 17 (assuming they both aren't already out by then). The Redskins also have tough matchups with the Giants and Ravens, and road games (never easy with a rookie quarterback) in Cleveland and Philly. Anyone want to bet on them going 4-1 in that stretch?
Minnesota would have to win 10 games to top Tampa Bay with a tiebreaker, but they aren't doing that with two games left against Green Bay and single matchups with Houston, Chicago and St. Louis.
The Seahawks would have seemed like the biggest obstacle 24 hours ago, but does anyone trust Russell Wilson to carry this team to the playoffs without Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman?
Every other team on this list has the hardest part of their schedule ahead of them. The Bucs finish up their own tough stretch of four road games in six weeks next Sunday in Denver.
You have to commend Tampa Bay for coming through that stretch nearly unscathed. When it comes right down to it, that's probably why the Bucs are going to make the playoffs.
So sit back, relax and enjoy the bloodbath, Bucs fans. While the rest of the NFC spends the next month or so knocking each other around, you'll be walking right into the playoffs.
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