Week 17 Preview: Despite the Records, There's Much to Still Be Gained Sunday for Falcons, Buccaneers

Overview: At 8-7 and 3-12, the Atlanta Falcons' and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' tilt on Sunday afternoon won't garner much national attention.  The Bucs' season, for all intents and purposes, ended before the team got on the plane to the land of fish and chips and lukewarm lagers.  The Falcons' playoff hopes were dashed following a string of tough November and December losses, during which time the Buccaneer defense knocked Matt Ryan out of action for a few weeks. 

However, since Ryan's return, the Falcons got back to their winning ways, shocking the Jets in New York and pounding the tailspun Bills at home.  At 8-7, they can cap their first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.  That is a dubious distinction that Ryan and company are desperately looking to erase. 

"Whether it's hard to grasp or whatever, it is what it is," Ryan said. "We want to be the first team and we want to set it straight with the organization that we're going to have back-to-back winning seasons here and hopefully for a long time."

However, they've also got a chance to evaluate key personnel going into the offseason.   As Pat Yusinskas notes, the Falcons have work to do in the offseason, most notably on defense:

You can bet the Falcons are going to be looking for a pass-rusher and a cover corner early in the 2010 draft or in free agency. Even with a bunch of injuries and some horrific early struggles, this defense got better as the season went on.

Certainly, the entire secondary will have to be evaluated this offseason, including CB Chris Houston, S Thomas DeCoud and S Antoine Harris (a restricted free agent), but none probably more than restricted free agent CB Brent Grimes.  No doubt Grimes will be doing his best impression of a talented cover cornerback on Sunday.  The up-and-down corner has picked up his game recently, picking off three passes in his last two games.  A good performance against Antonio Bryant and the Buccaneer receivers would go a long way towards building more late-season goodwill and may up the tender he may or may not receive from the Falcons this offseason.

For our Buccaneers, a three game winning streak would go a long way towards building more goodwill for embattled head coach Raheem Morris, especially with the growing speculation from some media outlets about the team's possible interest in coach Bill Cowher, which sources close to the Glazers reportedly deny, per TBO.com.  It would also work towards belatedly solidifying this team's long-sought identity.  It's been a quest this season for that elusive identity on both sides of the ball.  Jeff Jagodzinski's early firing, the instant promotion of Greg Olson, and the stubborn force-fed pass-heavy offense combined with the inaccurate and ineffective Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson led to a perfect storm of offensive inefficiency.  When the Bucs trailed early, they threw the ball.  When they led at Washington, they threw the ball. 

After the insertion of Josh Freeman and his early successes and failures, the onus of the offense was finally placed on the heavy shoulders of the offensive line and one Cadillac Williams during the last quarter of the season.  (I refuse to put Derrick Ward in here because he's been as ineffective of a runner as I predicted he would back when the Bucs signed him in February.)  Yes, Cadillac Williams...the guy who has yet to make it through a full 16-game season in his 5-year career.  That dubious statistic will change on Sunday, as Williams will appear in his elusive 16th game of the season, making his 15th start. 

Following two nasty torn patellar tendons in each knee during the '07 and '08 seasons, our fan favorite vehicle-turned-NFL player has steadily eased his way out of the auto repair shop and back into the Buccaneer offense....and I do mean eased.  Caddy, while being the closest thing this team has to a featured back, has had one...yes, that's right...one game where he's toted the rock more than 20 times.  That just happened to be last week when the Bucs, down 17 points, stayed the course on offense and ran the ball.  That faith was rewarded down the stretch in the ballgame, as he tore off big gains in the 4th quarter and overtime against a tired and worn-down Saints defense.  What a concept, eh?

Speaking of sticking with the run and productivity, it's worth noting that in the 5 times this year that Caddy has run the ball 13 or more times, his YPC average has been below 4.8 only ONCE.  Chew on that for a minute.  Pretty telling statistic in support of sticking with one back and letting him get into a rhythm.  Just like our front office was reportedly peeved that Jon Gruden didn't roll with Luke McCown last year in Atlanta to see what he could do when Garcia was hurt, I'm hoping that our coaching staff will take advantage of the opportunity to evaluate Caddy one last time and feature him early and often tomorrow.  I hope you're ready to bang some heads, FB Chris Pressley!  The Falcons rank 25th against the run, giving up 129 yards per game.  If the Bucs can grind out some first-half success, they can keep the Falcon linebackers in the 3-5 yard range and cheating forward at the snap, opening up the deep middle for Winslow and Bryant in play action against the NFL's 30th-ranked secondary, which is allowing an average of 272 passing yards per game.

Prediction: this is a tough one to call.  Both teams are playing well on both sides of the ball recently.  If I'm looking for a wild card, I'll take the team playing the best recently in the 2nd half and on special teams, which has been the Buccaneers.  In what will be a tough, physical game, the Bucs will fall behind in the 2nd quarter, but will be efficient enough on defense to hold Atlanta to field goals, keeping the game close enough for Cadillac Williams to carry the ball consistently and become greatly effective against a tired Atlanta defense in the 4th quarter.   Freeman will find Bryant and Winslow enough to keep the defense honest and allow Caddy to break the 100-yard barrier again, catapulting the Bucs into the offseason on a winning streak and with hope for 2010.  Keep Caddy's agent on speed dial, Dominik.  Bucs 24, Falcons 16

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