Must-win game? The first reaction is “of course not.” The Packers are 8-2, and they lead their division by 5 games with 5 games left in the season. There will be no must-win games for the Packers until the playoffs.
Still, there is an uncomfortable feeling that this week’s game at Tampa will determine home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. And that is a big deal for both teams. It is a big deal for the Buccaneers because of the oft-cited statistic that the Buccaneers have NEVER won a game, in the entire history of the franchise, in cold weather (where the kickoff temperature is below 40 degrees). It is almost as huge a factor for the Packers. The Packers have never, in the history of Lambeau Field, ever lost a home playoff game. They have won plenty of games on the road, in the regular season and in the playoffs, but their recent history is not as good. In fact, the Packers have lost the last 2 playoff games they have played on the road (at St. Louis last year, and at San Francisco after the 1998 season). So the Packers would prefer not to have to return to Tampa or New Orleans or San Francisco in January (not to play a football game, anyway).
So let’s look forward to the end of the season. Realistically, there are only 3 teams in contention with the Packers for the home field advantage in the NFC, the Buccaneers, the 49ers and the Eagles. The Packers and the Buccaneers are both 8-2 at the moment, and the 49ers and Eagles are both 7-3.
The Packers’ schedule is: at Tampa, Bears at Green Bay, Minnesota at Green Bay, at San Francisco, Buffalo at Green Bay, and at New York Jets. My best guess is that the Packers will lose 2 of those games, and end up at 12-4.
The Buccaneers’ schedule is: Green Bay at Tampa, at New Orleans, Atlanta at Tampa, at Detroit, Pittsburgh at Tampa, and at Chicago. My guess is that they will end up at 12-4 or 13-3, AND that they will get their first-ever cold weather win at Chicago.
The 49ers have Philadelphia at San Francisco, Seattle at San Francisco, at Dallas, Green Bay at San Francisco, at Arizona, and at St. Louis. I would imagine that they will end up at 11-5 or 12-4.
Finally, the Eagles play at San Francisco, St. Louis at Philadelphia, at Seattle, Washington at Philadelphia, at Dallas, and at the New York Football Giants. But the key factor in the case of the Eagles is that they have lost Donovan McNabb, probably at least for the rest of the regular season. How will they do with Koy Detmer behind center? Hard to say, but I would be surprised if they end up better than 10-6.
So, when you think about it, this really is a key (almost must-win) game for the Packers. If the Packers win, they will probably end up at 13-3 and with the home field advantage. The Buccaneers won’t be able to catch the Packers unless the Packers lose two more games, and the 49ers won’t be able to catch the Packers unless they beat the Packers straight up AND pick up another game somewhere along the way. The reverse is pretty much true if the Buccaneers win. They would probably end up with a 13-3 record and the home field advantage.
The only difference is that the Buccaneers face what I consider to be a tougher schedule. It is a little easier to imagine the Buccaneers losing more than one game in the games against New Orleans, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh (or maybe even at Chicago if you really believe in the cold weather jinx), but I would not count on it.
This game, which will be shown to 87% of the country by FOX, is the biggest game of the year for either team. If the Packers can win (which would be their first win at Raymond James stadium, by the way) they will be well on their way to securing home field advantage. [Ed. note - the Packers lost to the Buccaneers, 21-7.]