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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers

Buccaneers vs. Falcons: Game Preview

Can the Bucs essentially lock up a postseason berth with a win over their division rival?

The Bucs have to find a way to control Calvin Ridley on Sunday.
| Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) are on the road for the first time in five weeks as they travel up north to take on the Atlanta Falcons (4-9) in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

This week’s game has major playoff implications, just like last week’s game. If the Bucs win, then they are essentially in. If they lose, however, they’ll have to wait at least another week before they can officially say they’re playoff-bound.


Overview

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ronald Jones will miss the Week 15 clash with the Falcons.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What To Watch For

  • No Donovan Smith and no Ronald Jones II: Make no mistake, this is a big deal. The Bucs are missing two big parts of their offensive and their backups are questionable at best. Tampa Bay caught a break this week in terms of an opponent, but still, Atlanta’s front seven has improved a ton under Raheem Morris and will be even tougher to contain without these two guys.
  • The Bucs’ passing game: Tom Brady and co. should have success through the air today. There are matchups galore for the Bucs to exploit, especially the one between Chris Godwin and Falcons corner Isaiah Oliver. A.J. Terrell has been very good, but even he has a tremendous challenge in Antonio Brown and Mike Evans. Don’t be surprised if Brady has his best game in weeks.
  • Atlanta’s red zone offense: It’s putrid. The Falcons are second-to-last (just ahead of the Jets) when it comes to touchdown conversion percentage in the red zone (48.9%). That’s obviously not good. The Bucs are coming off a game against the Vikings where they stymied one of the league’s best red zone offenses. Can they keep it up against the Falcons?
  • No Julio Jones, no problem: It’s the Calvin Ridley show this week, which is not a bad thing for the Falcons. Ridley has proven that he is more than capable of being the WR1 in the Falcons’ offense, so the Bucs can’t take this matchup lightly. Russell Gage is a guy that can hurt you in the slot, as well. Just because Jones isn’t playing doesn’t mean the Falcons passing game is sunk.
  • Two bad rushing attacks: The Falcons and Bucs are both in the basement when it comes to rushing production in the NFL, even in Jones II is top-6 in total rush yards. We may see an all-out aerial attack considering the fact that both teams have very good defensive fronts. But this also could set up to where whomever makes the most plays/has the most consistency on the ground wins the game.

Impact Players

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • QB Tom Brady: The Bucs brought him in so they could get over their playoff drought and now, Brady has a chance to basically put them in the postseason with a win over the Falcons.
  • TE Rob Gronkowski: The Falcons are one of the worst teams —if not the worst— at covering tight ends. With no RoJo, expect the Bucs passing game to be a big factor and expect Gronk to be a big part of the game plan.
  • WR Chris Godwin: He’s coming off one of his lowest receiving totals in years, but has an excellent matchup and should have a big game this week.
  • DL Ndamukong Suh: The veteran lineman was all over the place against the Vikings and it resulted in his second-highest grade of the year. He’ll need to keep it up this week against a good Falcons offensive line.
  • OLB Shaq Barrett: Barrett will likely go up against a Kaleb McGary-less offensive line that surrendered two sacks without him in the lineup last week. Two sacks may not sound like much, but it puts things in perspective when you consider the Chargers are 19th in adjusted sack in rate.
  • CB Carlton Davis III: Julio Jones won’t play, so that means Calvin Ridley will be the focal point of the passing attack. That likely means Davis will be on Ridley for the majority of the game. See where I’m going, here?
NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers
Matt Ryan did not play well against the Chargers.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons

  • QB Matt Ryan: Last week’s game against the Chargers was one of the worst games of Ryan’s career. Will he bounce back this week?
  • TE Hayden Hurst: He may not be worth the entire second-round pick that was given up to bring him to Atlanta, but Hurst has still had a decent year. The Bucs have trouble covering tight ends, so Hurst may be in line for some big moments today.
  • WR Calvin Ridley: As I mentioned, there will be no Julio Jones. Ridley has been lights out all year and will need to continue to play that way.
  • DT Grady Jarrett: Jarrett is one of the NFL’s best interior defenders. The Bucs are fortunate they have a solid group on the interior of their offensive line, but that doesn’t mean Jarrett can’t break through.
  • CB A.J. Terrell: The first-round rookie has played really well this year and is really the only viable part of the Falcons’ secondary.

Playoff scenario(s)

I know. This is a new section. But of the three years I’ve covered this team, this is the first year where the Bucs are legitimately in the playoff hunt. I think it’s pretty important we have this conversation each week until they make the playoffs. Therefore, this “playoff scenarios” section will replace the “cool stats” section until they are in the postseason.

So what needs to happen this week for the Bucs to clinch a playoff berth? It’s simple. The Bucs need to win and the Minnesota Vikings-Chicago Bears matchup needs to end in a tie. But even if that game doesn’t end in a tie, Tampa Bay will put itself in position to clinch next week in Detroit with a win over the Falcons this week.

There is no scenario in which the Bucs clinch a spot this week if they lose. They will have to continue to wait on their postseason fate and will still need help next week in order to get in.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brady has the Bucs in shape for their first postseason berth since 2007.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Game Outlook

This is the first of three very important games for the Bucs, even if said games feature two opponents with sub-.500 records.

And that’s because the Bucs are in control of their playoff destiny and will remain in control as long as they take care of business each week. That starts this week with the Falcons.

Tampa Bay is clearly the better team in terms of on paper and on the field. Atlanta has been much better under Morris than it was under Dan Quinn, but they are far from world beaters and you could argue that they are just average on their best days.

Regardless, it’s a division rival and division rivals know your team better than anyone else. Morris was on the Falcons staff last year, so he knows what the Bucs like to do on offense. But even then, Tampa Bay should control this game.

Tampa Bay’s pass protection is where things could go wrong. The Bucs are already missing Smith and Morris is very good at dialing up creative blitzes and disguising said blitzes. If Tampa Bay’s offensive line can’t communicate properly or figure out what’s going on, then this game could turn into a dog fight.

But at the end of the day, expect the Bucs to be 9-5 and inches away from their first postseason berth in 12 years.

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