A couple months ago, few circled this game on the calendar as one of the big matchups of the season. After all, the Falcons were running away with the subpar NFC South and seemed to only be playing for home field advantage throughout the playoffs while the rest of the division had 2 victories combined.
Atlanta is still scraping by with victories but the NFC South is no longer a certainty. Tampa Bay, winners of 5 of their last six games, is one of the hottest teams in the NFL and they're eager to prove themselves worthy of playoff consideration.
It's a big time matchup in Tampa as the Bucs look to keep the heat on the Falcons.
Series: Tampa Bay Leads 19-18
Last Meeting: Jan. 1, 2012 - Atlanta 45, Tampa Bay 24
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Attack vs. Atlanta Falcons Pass Defense
Even though they were held in check the majority of the game against Carolina, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman overcame a tough start (2 interceptions, one going for a pick six) to rally the Bucs past the Panthers. Even with the picks, Freeman remains on a tear, throwing 16 touchdowns against 3 ints in his last six games.
Vincent Jackson continues to be the man for the Bucs, averaging 20.5 yds a reception and scoring 7 touchdowns. His impact has been felt with the rest of the core as well, with Mike Williams pulling down a career high 17.6 yds a catch and with 5 touchdowns himself.
The Bucs' 14th ranked passing offense will be going up against the Falcons' 7th ranked pass defense. Atlanta is a little banged up in the secondary with corner Asante Samuel and Safety Charles Mitchell nursing injuries. Samuel may not be available for Sunday's game as he missed practice on Thursday.
Thomas Decoud leads the Falcons with 4 of the team's 11 interceptions.
Atlanta is tied for 15th in the NFL with 24 sacks, led by veteran John Abraham's 9 sacks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Game vs Atlanta Falcons Run Defense
Doug Martin is something special. Everyone in the NFL now knows this rookie from Boise State's name. Martin hit the 1,000 yard mark with six games to spare thanks to an impressive effort in overtime. On the season, the Dougernaut is averaging 5.1 yards a carry behind an offensive line decimated by injury. Martin is also a force in the passing game, catching balls out of the backfield and doing a tremendous job at pass protection.
LeGarrette Blount is still a member of the team but he has seen his touches decrease as Martin has emerged.
Atlanta's 26th ranked run defense will need to devise a way to slow Dynamite Doug down. The Falcons do get a big boost with the return of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to their defensive lineup. However, Weatherspoon's presence didn't make much difference for a team that has held just two opponents under 100 yds rushing all season. He's a more sure tackler and that might help their ability to limit the longer runs but it certainly isn't a cure-all for the Falcons run defense woes.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Atlanta Falcons Passing Attack vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense
The biggest question for Sunday's game is will Julio Jones be able to go? The young wideout returned to practice on Thursday, albeit in a limited capacity, but it appears he won't be 100% for Sunday's game. Even if he can't go, the Falcons have plenty of weapons to attack the Bucs' 32nd ranked pass defense.
Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez continue to be among the best at their respective positions and Matt Ryan is going to make sure he doesn't repeat his 5 interception effort against the Cardinals.
In his past six ball games, Ryan has thrown 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and has already matched his interception total (12) from all of last season.
While Tampa Bay surrender a league worst 312.6 yds per game through the air, Tampa Bay is ranked third in the NFL with 15 interceptions. Veteran Ronde Barber and rookie Leonard Johnson share the team lead with 3 each.
Tampa Bay lost their leading sacker, 2011 first round pick DE Adrian Clayborn early in the season and just recently got back DaQuan Bowers, who has 2 sacks in limited action since his return 4 weeks ago. Michael Bennett leads the Bucs with 7 of the team's 17 sacks.
Atlanta Falcons Running Attack vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense
It's hard to put a finger on what exactly has happened to the Falcons once feared running game. Atlanta's attempts aren't far off from what they were in 2011, when the Falcons ran for 1,834 yds as a team. In 2011, Atlanta attempted 28.3 run attempts per game. In 2012, that number has dipped slightly to 24.4. With just four less carries a game, Atlanta has dropped from averaging 114.6 yds a game to 89.2 yds a game - 28th in the league.
Michael Turner is still there but is averaging just 3.7 yards a carry and he has just two 100 yd rushing days on the season, compared to last season's 6. Turner is averaging just 58 yds a game.
They'll be facing a Buccaneers defense that leads the NFL in tackles for loss with 69 and is on pace to shatter the team record (88 in 2002). The Bucs run defenders are led by rookie phenom Lavonte David, who has 90 tackles (73 solo) and 13 TFLs on the year. 2nd year middle linebacker Mason Foster has rebounded from a sub par rookie campaign to rank second on the team with 68 tackles and 11 TFLs. Gerald McCoy's presence in the center of the defense has certainly made a big difference as well. GMac has 20 tackles, 3 sacks and 6 tackles for loss.
The Bucs are the number one defense against the run, surrendering just 81.8 yds per game.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Former Buccaneer Matt Bryant continues to be one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL, he's made 25 of his 28 attempts this season with a long of 55. Matt Bosher has been impressive in his second season as Falcons punter. He's averaging 47.1 yards a punt with 14 kicks inside opponents 20 yd line. Jacquizz Rodgers is the team's leading kick returner, averaging 26.7 yds a return. Dominque Franks is the punt returner. His longest return of the season has been 28 yds.
Tampa Bay counters with reliable kicker Connor Barth. Barth has recovered from a mid-season slump and has nailed 17 of 21 with a long of 57. Former Falcon Punter Michael Koenen continues to be an intriguing part of the Buccaneers special teams unit. Averaging 44.7 yds a punt, Koenen has put 16 punts inside opponents 20 yd line. Koenen also leads the NFL in kickoffs that go for touchbacks with 44.
With Regus Benn going on injured reserve, Lequan Lewis takes over as the team's primary returner. Lewis is averaging 21.5 yds a return in his two attempts. Roscoe Parrish continues to be an adventure in punt returning but is averaging 7.7 yds a punt with a long of 26.
By the Numbers
- Atlanta has won six of the last eight meetings between the teams.
- The Buccaneers have score a league high 205 points over the past six games.
- Tampa Bay has won four straight and five of their last six.
- Six of the Falcons' nine victories are by a touchdown or less.
- All four of Tampa Bay's losses were by a touchdown or less.
- Tampa Bay has led in every game this season.
- Atlanta has led in every game this season.
- Tampa Bay is 9th in red zone defense (TDs allowed), Atlanta is 12th in red zone scoring (TDs)
- Tampa Bay is 4th in red zone scoring (TDs), Atlanta is 21st in red zone defense (TDs allowed)
- Tampa Bay is 6th in the NFL in Turnover Margin (+9), Atlanta is 11th (+5)
- Tampa Bay is 12-8 all time in Tampa versus Atlanta
- Tampa Bay has won three of the last five meetings in Tampa.
- Since becoming division rivals in 2002, Tampa Bay is 6-4 at home versus Atlanta.
Whether there's fans in the stands or not shouldn't matter in this one. The Buccaneers are going to beat Atlanta by running the football and getting pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan will likely go for big yardage on the Bucs defense and probably toss a few touchdown passes to White or Tony Gonzalez, but Freeman and Jackson can counter those points and the Bucs have balance with Doug Martin.
Its not going to be a cakewalk and in fact it will probably be one of these games that goes down to the wire. The Falcons have had much luck with those close games going their way, while the Bucs haven't - but on both sides, that's started to change. The Bucs have begun to win the close ones, while Atlanta is losing them (albeit just the one).
Atlanta's a good football team but they're not unbeatable, as the Saints showed a couple weeks ago. They'll be beaten once again, this time by one of the hottest teams in football.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 30, Atlanta 28