If the Bucs win 11 games, 2020 will mark the first time that’s happened since 2005 and it will be just the fourth time in franchise history that the Bucs have won 11+ games.
Oh, and they’ll lock in the No. 5 seed. This week’s game is a bit more important than it initially appears on the surface.
- All-time series: The Falcons lead the all-time series, 28-26
- Longest win streak: Tampa Bay has six straight wins from 1997-2003.
- Largest margin of victory: I doubt the Falcons’ embarrassing (for Bucs fans) 56-14 beatdown will ever be replaced.
- 2020 offensive and defensive rankings: The Bucs have jumped up to the 11th-best offense (3rd passing, 28th rushing) and are sixth in total defense (22nd passing, 1st rushing). The Falcons are currently 18th in total offense (5th passing, 29th rushing) and 28th in total defense (31st passing, 7th rushing).
What To Watch For
- COVID-19, again: The Bucs were missing Donovan Smith and Ronald Jones II due to the NFL’s COVID-19 protocol the last time these two teams met. This week isn’t much different, you just swap out Smith and RoJo with Devin White, Shaquil Barrett, and Steve McClendon. Those are some big pieces missing from the defense. It’ll be interesting to see how Anthony Nelson, Kevin Minter, and co. play in their stead. At least Todd Bowles is still around.
- Staying close to home: A Tampa Bay win guarantees the No. 5 seed in the playoffs, which means the Bucs will travel to whichever city hosts the eventual NFC East champion. A trip to Dallas, New York, or Washington would be much easier than having to travel to Seattle, which is what will likely happen if Tampa Bay loses and the Rams win.
- Milestones, milestones, milestones: There are some big records waiting to be broken this week. Mike Evans needs 40 yards to break his and Randy Moss’ record of consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, the Bucs need 11 points to break last year’s scoring record, Tom Brady needs two touchdown passes to break Peyton Manning’s record of most passing touchdowns in the first season with a team, and RoJo needs 100 yards to notch his first 1,000 yard season in the NFL.
- Safeties: White’s absence likely means the Bucs are going to have three safeties on the field a lot. That’s not a bad thing, at all. Mike Edwards has played well in limited time and Jordan Whitehead is an effective player in the box. I’d expect to see Edwards and Antoine Winfield Jr. mixing it up at deep safety and in the box at times, with Whitehead staying closer to the line of scrimmage. It will be interesting to see how everyone is used this week.
- No more slow starts: Tampa Bay came flying out of the gate against the Lions, even if they were helped by an offside call that kept the first drive alive. Will the Bucs be able to get off to another quick start or will we see something more along the lines of the Week 15 matchup/most of the year?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- QB Tom Brady: He’s led the Bucs to points on 10 of the last 12 meaningful drives that he’s been a part of (excluding the final series in ATL to run out the clock). Will Brady be able to keep up his play?
- RB Ronald Jones II: No one is really sure as to how much RoJo will play, but one would think he has to provide some kind of spark to the Bucs’ backfield.
- WR Mike Evans: Bruce Arians said last week that he “desperately” wants Evans to get the 1k record this week. I’d expect Evans takes advantage of that and has a big game.
- DL Ndamukong Suh: Atlanta’s pass protection is good. Suh will need to step it up considering McClendon won’t play. The Bucs’ pass rush has to come from somewhere.
- OLB Jason Pierre-Paul: Speaking of pass rush. JPP needs a half-sack to record his second double-digit sack season in three years with the Bucs. Remember when Tampa Bay went 12 years without a double-digit sack season?
- S Jordan Whitehead: Expect the Bucs to deploy a bunch of three safety sets with White out of the game. That likely means we’ll see Whitehead play more of a hybrid role. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.
- QB Matt Ryan: The Falcons came out with a good game plan in Week 15 and Ryan threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the first half because of it. Will he be as effective this time around?
- WR Calvin Ridley: No Julio Jones, no problem. The Bucs couldn’t stop Ridley two weeks ago and he likely would have won the Falcons the game if it weren’t for Winfield’s PBU in the end zone. It won’t surprise me if he has another big game.
- TE Hayden Hurst: He didn’t have the type of game that Ridley had a couple of weeks ago, but he still had four receptions and found his way into the end zone. Will the Falcons look to Hurst with White out?
- DT Grady Jarrett: You always have to account for Jarrett when playing the Falcons. Let’s just hope he doesn’t give us any pre-playoff scares by getting to Brady in this game.
- OLB Dante Fowler Jr.: The former Jaguar and Ram was called out by Raheem Morris earlier this week. Will that light a fire under what has been a disappointing 2020 season?
- S Keanu Neal: Finally healthy, Neal has had a very good 2020 season. He was flying around the field the last time these two teams met, so I’d expect a similar performance this time around.
The Bucs have officially clinched a playoff spot, but their official seeding has yet to be determined. A win over the Falcons locks in the No. 5 seed, but a loss combined with a Rams win will drop the Bucs to No. 6, which drastically changes their plans for Wild Card weekend.
I was terrified of this matchup after the Week 15 bout and not much has changed since. Especially with the COVID issues that have cropped up over the last couple of days.
But, despite all of that, I still think Tampa Bay wins this game. There’s too much on the line in terms of playoff planning and this team still needs the reps to get better. They’ve shown over the last three weeks that they are dialed in and ready to go, despite the issues that have cropped up at times. They know what needs to be done.
The only thing I know for sure about this game is don’t take the Bucs and the (-6.5) line. I have Tampa Bay winning, but only by a point.
Regardless, plan on the third 11-5 finish in franchise history and the No. 5 seed in the playoffs after a win over the Falcons.