It's inevitable. Every year, when the final snap of the regular season has been played, and the playoff brackets are set, a few playoff-caliber teams are on the outside looking in (thanks NFC West).
Fans across the country wallow in their beverage of choice, and obsess over a loss in week 9 or 11—or the dreaded week 17 loss. You know the loss; the type that in retrospect clearly was the decisive factor in your team not making the playoffs. These games always take place later in the season, or do they?
Detroit & Tampa Bay face off Sunday at 1:00 P.M. CT in a matchup that likely would be the game of the week if it were scheduled for the second half of the season. However the NFL schedule makers are cruel, heartless human beings, that relish on crushing the hopes of Lions and Bucs fans as early as possible.
These two teams and their fanbases have been amped up for this season more than any in recent memory. You can feel the excitement, it's like being at the apex of a rollercoaster ride. If you've been reading the playoff predictions that have surfaced about the past few weeks—and if you're reading this article I'm guessing you've skimmed some playoff predictions—you'll notice that several prestigious columnists are picking Detroit or Tampa to sneak into the playoffs this season. Few folks are picking both.
The two teams are similar in their makeup. The Lions and Bucs each have a promising third year Quarterback in Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman.
Both signal callers have young, talented running backs that could become stars in 2011 (Although I don't think Jahvid Best will play a full 16. While Blount might not have the personality to earn himself a Gatorade contract—they don't even have a real boxer signed for the G series, much less a guy that punches his teammate.), and weapons at receiver and tight end.
Calvin Johnson is the lone pro bowler, but look for a big year from the slimmer-than-Seattle's-Mike Williams.
Same goes for the underrated Brandon Pettigrew and Kellen Winslow. On defense, the Lions & Bucs both have budding stars on the defensive line in Suh and McCoy, but each team has holes in their secondary.
For the Lions, cornerbacks Chris Houston and Eric Wright will probably never be household names. For the Bucs, Ronde Barber is 36 years old, their head coach Raheem Morris is 34!
Each team plays in a tough division, the North or South could produce three playoff teams. Atlanta and New Orleans are almost locks. Green Bay is a lock in the North, while Chicago's schedule gives them a realistic shot at getting back in. Which division will send three teams to the postseason? The North or the South. Is it Detroit or Tampa Bay? It can't be both.
These two teams are almost mirror reflections of one another—today. However by season's end my bet is one will be heading towards the playoffs, while the other one will not.
Several meaningful games will be played starting this Sunday, September 11th-January 1st, 2012. I can't help but wonder if the most important game for Detroit and Tampa Bay is the first one.