The Buccaneers are quietly one of the NFL’s hottest teams

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Baker Mayfield tackles Ryan Jensen. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

On Dec. 10, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ playoff hopes were cut to one drive. They were dragging and on the road.

With 3:23 left, the Atlanta Falcons scored to take a 25-22 lead. A loss would see the Bucs fall to 5-8. While they wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated if they lost, they would be two games behind the Falcons.

Heading into the new year, the Buccaneers aren’t just alive, they’re the type of team that might even win a playoff game.

Tampa Bay won that game against the Falcons as Baker Mayfield drove them down for the game-winning score with 31 seconds left. Since then, they have been one of the hottest teams in football. Mayfield gave the Green Bay Packers a perfect passer rating for another win. Tampa Bay beat the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. The Buccaneers have won four in a row and winning the NFC South seems inevitable. They have an 86% chance of making the playoffs, according to Next Gen Stats.

When Tampa Bay named Mayfield their starting quarterback before the season, there were countless jokes about tanking and Caleb Williams. This ignored the fact that the Buccaneers still had plenty of blue chip players. Mayfield also played better than expected. It all comes together at the end of the season. There’s a very good chance Game #4 vs. 5 in the NFC playoffs will be the Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay. That wouldn’t be a gift for the Cowboys.

This week’s cue is a bit odd. Tampa Bay is just a 2.5-point favorite at BetMGM against the New Orleans Saints. Maybe the Saints have a little more to play for. The Buccaneers are a practical lock to win the division, something that may have snuck up on everyone. The Saints can still clinch a wild card spot, but their slim hopes rest on a win on Sunday. Still, the Bucs are much better than the Saints and have already beaten them once, in New Orleans.

The Buccaneers are this week’s pick. They’ve covered the spread in seven of their last nine games. It might not be the last time they cover this season.

Here are the remaining picks against the spread for Week 17, with odds from BetMGM:

Browns (-7.5) over Jets

It’s hard to pick a favorite by more than a touchdown when the total for the game is only 34.5. I just wonder how many points the Jets can really score against this Browns defense that gets even better in home games.

Cowboys (-6) over Lions

We’re dealing with the Home Cowboys here instead of the Road Cowboys, which is a completely different NFL team. The Cowboys look unbeatable at home. There are a lot of points, but my problem with the Lions is that they accomplished their big goal of winning the NFC North and now what? They don’t get No. 1, and I’m not sure there’s a huge difference between No. 2 and No. 3. They might be flat, like a baseball team in the game after the clinch.

Patriots (+13) over Bills

Maybe the Bills got a wake-up call with a poor performance against the Chargers. They also won that game, so maybe we’re in for another game where Buffalo plays down the competition. The Patriots aren’t good, but they beat the Broncos last week. They haven’t given up. The Bills should come away with a win, but they may also be keeping an eye on the Dolphins next week.

Bears (-3) over Falcons

The Bears have been pretty good lately. Much better than the Falcons, although Atlanta played well after Taylor Heinicke took over at QB. But the Falcons haven’t been very good on the road this season. The Bears are the better team right now, home or away. Easy call here.

Raiders (+3.5) over Colts

The Raiders would again not get two touchdowns on defense in seven seconds to save a fumble on offense. But I like how hard Las Vegas is playing and their playoff hopes aren’t dead yet. It feels like a field goal play either way.

Giants (+5.5) over Rams

The Giants were mostly competitive when Tyrod Taylor played. He gives them a better chance than Tommy DeVito. The Giants played strong in the second half last week and look to end the season on a high note. Maybe playing Rams spoiler is an incentive.

Eagles (-10.5) over Cardinals

It’s been a long time since the Eagles won a game by double digits. Oct. 22 vs. Miami, to be exact. This feels like the right place. The Cardinals are not good, they are much worse on the road, this is their second straight long road trip in a losing season and an early start on top of that. Three of the Cardinals’ last four games have been by double digits. If Philly lets Arizona hang around in this case, it’s one more reason to believe the Eagles are in trouble come playoff time.

Commanders (+13) over 49ers

The concern is that an angry 49ers team is going up against quarterbacks who can’t stop anyone on defense. But Jacoby Brissett can give the team a chance. They do have offensive talent. And 13 points is a lot for a 49ers team that’s a really good bet for a No. 1 seed. It just might not be fun to root for the Commanders to keep it a little closer.

Panthers (+6.5) over Jaguars

The Jaguars haven’t looked the same since Trevor Lawrence suffered a high ankle sprain. Not that the Panthers are suddenly great, but they are playing better. It’s scary to take on the Panthers, but the Jaguars are deep in crisis.

Ravens (-3.5) over Dolphins

There has to be concern that the Ravens will disappoint. They just won a huge game in San Francisco. But they also know the Dolphins take control of the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win. This is a great game for the Ravens. Let’s assume John Harbaugh will get his team ready, especially after the Dolphins beat them in Baltimore last season. This pick is nothing against the Dolphins, who are a good team, but I’m not jumping in front of the Ravens train right now.

Titans (+5.5) over Texans

It’s hard to call this game before knowing if CJ Stroud will return for Houston. It might not matter. The Titans aren’t good, but they play hard. The Texans can’t assume Stroud will be his normal self right away after two weeks off from a major concussion. The first Texans-Titans game was close, with Houston pulling out an overtime win, and this one should be close as well.

Steelers (+3.5) over Seahawks

Maybe Mason Rudolph will save the Steelers season. He had arguably the best game of any Pittsburgh quarterback this season. I played well enough that I will take more than a goal from a game. I don’t love the Steelers on the road, and I can’t forget that two weeks ago they went on the road against Indianapolis and looked completely done for the season, but this feels like another field goal game to me.

Broncos (-3.5) over Chargers

A lot of that depends on how the Broncos view the quarterback switch. If they think benching Russell Wilson was just a money move, they may not take kindly to this trade, as a playoff spot is still mathematically possible. But if they believe it’s just a football move — everyone should be very skeptical of that — then they’re going to rally around Jarrett Stidham and maybe play very well. I will consider the latter.

Bengals (+7) over Chiefs

The Chiefs aren’t dead this season like everyone seems to believe, but do I trust them to start covering touchdown spreads? Not yet. There’s no reason to bet that much unless you think they’ll take their frustrations out on the Bengals. The Bengals weren’t bad with Jake Browning before last week. Seven points seems too much.

Vikings (-2) over Packers

Well, the Packers don’t have to worry about Jaire Alexander popping up to discuss the coin toss. They really have to worry about covering Justin Jefferson without their top cornerback. The Packers aren’t very good. They needed the full 60 minutes to defeat the Panthers. Now they hit the road and cover a small part of Minnesota? is not

Last week: 9-7

Season to date: 123-113-8

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