Three weeks ago when the Falcons beat the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay was a team in disarray with MRSA outbreaks, a very public breakup of a quarterback and a coach and a coach that appeared to be dead man walking.
The Falcons were just banged up - but still held the glimmer of hope they might get through this rough patch and still be in contention in the NFC South.
My how things have changed.
Tampa Bay seems to have new life, buoyed by their coach apparently lightening up and the team seems more together, hardened by the difficult times. They've played good football the last two weeks, nearly upsetting Seattle on their home field and then completing the upset against the Dolphins on Monday night football.
The Falcons meanwhile have fallen off a cliff - blown out in each of their last three games. There are rumors that even Mike Smith - who has ushered in the greatest period in franchise history - may not be safe. If that's not an illustration of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, I don't know what is.
Can the Bucs keep the Falcons reeling?
Series: Tied 20-20
Last Meeting: Atlanta defeated Tampa Bay 31-23
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Attack vs. Atlanta Falcons Pass Defense
Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon threw for 256 yds and two touchdowns in the first meeting against the Falcons but I wouldn't expect a repeat performance.
Not because the Falcons have improved or Glennon isn't as good as he was then - but more because the Bucs have found a new dedication to running the football and limiting Glennon's exposure.
Glennon threw 44 times in that first game and that's truly not where the Bucs want to be.
Of course, Tampa Bay fell behind quickly and that really forced the Bucs' hand.
Tampa Bay has the 30th ranked passing attack in the league and is missing Mike Williams. Atlanta has the 25th ranked pass defense and only has 6 interception as a team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Game vs. Atlanta Falcons Run Defense
Why have the Falcons' defense fallen on hard times? They are getting destroyed in the running game. That's good news for the Bucs, who in recent weeks has seen a resurgence in their rushing attack despite being without superstar back Doug Martin.
Tampa Bay is down to their third and fourth string backs after Mike James was lost for the season with a broken ankle but that didn't stop the Bucs from putting up 145 yds rushing on Miami. 102 of those yards came from the duo who will be out there on Sunday - Brian Leonard and Bobby Rainey.
The Falcons have given up an average of 181 yds on the ground in their last three games.
Tampa Bay ran for 111 yds in the first meeting, so you can expect a full dose of running the football in the rematch.
The Bucs are 14th in the league in rushing, Atlanta is 27th in stopping the run.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Atlanta Falcons Passing Attack vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense
You can't have a much better game than the one Matt Ryan had against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their first meeting. Ryan was on fire, despite being down his two starting wide outs. Ryan was 20 of 26 for 273 yds and 3 touchdowns, while WR Harry Douglas leading the way with 149 yds on 7 receptions.
Roddy White is back for the Falcons but may not be all the way back. White was targeted just 4 times in the game last week, catching one ball for 20 yds. Douglas continues to get the bulk of the targets and the work.
One would expect Darrelle Revis - who is finally rounding into his Revis Island form - to be on Douglas while Johnthan Banks should take Roddy White. It sounds odd, but until White can prove he can be a force - the Bucs have to make sure Douglas doesn't beat them again.
Tony Gonzalez hasn't practiced all week and may not go on Sunday. That would help out the Bucs' secondary immensely.
The Falcons still have the 6th best passing game in the league. The Bucs are a respectable 14th against the pass.
Atlanta Falcons Running Game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense
The Bucs are coming off a game where they held the Miami Dolphins to 2 yards rushing. That's not a typo. Just two yards total for an entire game.
Enter the Atlanta Falcons and their league worst running game. Atlanta is averaging just 64.3 yards a game on the ground. They hope it will get a little better with the expected return of Steven Jackson.
Truth be told, though, Jackson averaged just 3.2 yds a carry before he got hurt, so it remains to be seen how effective he can be against the league's 5th ranked run defense.
Atlanta managed 18 yds rushing in the first meeting.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Atlanta's Matt Bryant continues to be one of the league's most dependable weapons. Bryant is 13 of 14 this season with a long of 53. Punter Matt Bosher continues to blast the tar out of the ball, averaging 47.8 yds a punt.
Tampa Bay's Rian Lindell has been solid of late and on the season has hit 13 of 15 with a long of 50. Michael Koenen hasn't been that good this year, averaging just 43.1 yds a punt. Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano tried to cover for the punter this week, telling reporters, "Mike's such an unselfish player because we've asked him to do some things in the punting game that without a shadow of a doubt decrease his gross punting. But he's a team guy and truly wants to win."
Eric Page is the Bucs primary returner, averaging 25.4 and 11.2 in kick and punt returns respectively.
Tampa Bay has also seen punt returners go for long returns in consecutive weeks.
By the Numbers
- Since becoming division rivals in 2002, Atlanta has swept Tampa Bay three times in the season series (2006, 10, 11).
- Atlanta has won 3 of their last 4 trips to Tampa
- Atlanta is 8-10 all-time in Tampa.
- Atlanta is 5-3 in Tampa since the teams became division rivals in 2002.
- Atlanta has won 8 of the last 10 meetings overall.
- The teams have split the season series three out of the last five years.
Perhaps its the euphoria of finally winning a game but things seem a bit more upbeat at One Buc Palace of late. The grey skies of MRSA and the Freeman fiasco seems to have cleared and the Bucs are playing much better football as a team.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons have been outscored 94-33 in their last three games. Could the Bucs have their first two game winning streak in a calendar year (Nov. 18th, 2012, Tampa Bay won their fourth straight game by rallying past Carolina in overtime)?
Atlanta's primary weakness - defending the run - has been the Bucs' strongest asset in the last few weeks. Defensively, Tampa Bay is playing better than they did in the Georgia Dome and Revis seems to finally rounding into shape to become the guy the Bucs hoped he'd be.
The Falcons got Roddy White back last week and should be getting back Steven Jackson but they may be without Matt Ryan's security blanket in Tony Gonzalez.
The Bucs obviously can't allow the Falcons to jump to a 24-7 lead as they did in Week 7. Protecting the football and avoiding costly penalties will go along way in doing that.
Atlanta doesn't look like a team capable of sweeping anyone right now. They're 0-4 on the road and haven't looked good in doing it.
I think it will be a competitive game - the Bucs seem to force it to be that way - but I think Tampa Bay wants that winning feeling one more week.
Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Falcons 16