What’s at stake for the Bucs on Sunday? Oh, just their Super Bowl chances

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TAMPA — So the head coach ain’t fooling around, and for that you should be thankful.

Bruce Arians has seen his guys leave the field on carts, on crutches and — in the case of Antonio Brown — on a one-man crusade to nowhere.

Yes, the Bucs are banged up, battered and bruised heading into the regular-season finale against Carolina but, even with a division title in pocket, Arians is not conceding an inch. If his starters are given medical clearance, they’re going to be in the huddle Sunday.

And that’s a good thing because Tampa Bay still has a chance to claim the No. 2 seed in the NFC, which is a prize worth chasing. Even if you do it with a limp.

The difference between No. 2 and No. 3 could be the difference between playing at home or on the road in the second round. And that means it could be the difference between having to play in Los Angeles, then Green Bay on back-to-back weeks.

Now, I’m not saying it can’t be done. After all, the Bucs beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in the playoffs last season. But that was a week after a short flight to New Orleans with a relatively healthy team. Flying across the country with your medical records in your duffel bag is a much more daunting task.

In other words, getting back to the Super Bowl could be a lot easier if the Bucs finish 13-4 instead of 12-5. So, yes, doing everything possible to get the No. 2 seed is the proper strategy.

It also could be a huge bonus for local fans. As the No. 2 seed, you are guaranteed two home games if you win in the wild-card round. I don’t want to say that’s rare around here, but the last time the Bucs played two home games in the same postseason we were all wearing disco shirts.

When you think about it, any home playoff game is rare in Tampa Bay. If you take away last year’s Super Bowl — which was technically a neutral site at Raymond James Stadium and had limited seating due to the pandemic — it’s been 13 years since the Bucs hosted a playoff game in front of a full stadium.

Having said that, what are the odds that Tampa Bay gets the No. 2 seed? Better than Dallas, a lot better than Arizona, but not as good as Los Angeles.

There are literally dozens of scenarios involving five games that all begin at 4:25 p.m. on Sunday but there are only four possible outcomes for the Bucs.

Best-case scenario

The Rams lose and the Bucs win. That’s the only scenario that gives the Bucs the No. 2 seed. And, really, it is not so far-fetched.

While the Rams are motivated to clinch the No. 2 seed for themselves, they’ll be facing a desperate opponent. If the 49ers beat the Rams, they’re in the playoffs. If they lose and New Orleans wins against Atlanta, then the 49ers are out.

As the No. 2 seed, the Bucs would get a home game against the Eagles in the wild-card round, then face either Dallas, Los Angeles or Arizona at home in the second round.

Right now, the Caesars sportsbook has the Bucs as eight-point favorites against Carolina while the Rams are 4 ½-point favorites against the 49ers.

Worst-case scenario

While a Rams loss opens the door for the Bucs to get the No. 2 seed, it could also cause them to fall to No. 4. If the Rams and Bucs both lose, it opens the door for either a three-way or four-way tie at 12-5.

I won’t go through all the tiebreakers or scenarios, but there is a version (Rams lose, Bucs lose, Cowboys win, Cardinals lose) where the Bucs fall to No. 4 and face an 11-6 Arizona team in the first round.

In that situation, there is a possibility the Bucs would have to face the Packers in Green Bay in the second round instead of waiting until the conference championship weekend.

Two most-likely scenarios

The Bucs are currently the No. 3 seed and, based on the odds, that’s probably where they will remain. The only question is whether they face the Eagles or the 49ers at home in the first round.

If the Rams win, chances are the Bucs are playing the Eagles at home in the opening weekend. If the Rams win and the Bucs lose, that increases the possibility they will face the 49ers in the first round.

Is there a difference between the 49ers and Eagles, both 9-7? Their records are similar but both Pro Football Focus and ESPN’s power index say San Francisco is the tougher opponent.

So what does all of this mean?

No. 1, you have a chance to see more postseason football on Dale Mabry Avenue this month than you have in a generation.

No. 2, the rest of this month could be a lot nicer if the Bucs take care of business against the Panthers on Sunday.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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