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Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: Week 18 Preview

The Buccaneers look to end on a high note before heading to the playoffs - but how many starters will actually play?

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Buccaneers have won the NFC South in consecutive seasons for the first time in team history. They finally saw the explosive connection between Tom Brady and Mike Evans get on track against the Carolina Panthers last week - resulting in Evans being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week and Brady being named FedEx Air Performance of the week - and now they have one more game where their playoff seeding can’t be helped or hurt when they travel to Atlanta.

So, that begs the question - who is actually going to suit up and play when there’s nothing to play for?

If it were up to Tom Brady, he’d probably play the entire game. His undefeated streak against the Falcons is still holding and starting the game then being pulled could put that in jeopardy. However, is a personal streak worth the risk of injury and torpedoing any chances the Bucs have in the postseason? No, not really. However, it goes deeper than that.

For months - scratch that - for the entire season, Bucs fans have been clamoring to see anything reminiscent of the high octane, vertical assault on offense that they’ve come to know over the last two season. When the Buccaneers have taken their shots, they’ve been off the mark. Sometimes it’s Brady missing a receiver. Sometimes it’s a drop by the receiver. Sometimes the protection doesn’t hold up and the throw is rushed or intercepted. Last week, though? Last week it was on fire. You don’t want to finally see those things start to work then take a week off.

The starters - at least the offensive starters - need to continue to build off that, at least for the first half. Take a few deep shots and hopefully see a connection between Brady and his intended target as the Bucs close in on the postseason - and Ryan Jensen’s potential return which will change the entire landscape of the Bucs’ offense.

Beyond Brady’s personal streak against the Falcons being on the line, there are other personal markers players may want to hit. Chris Godwin has an NFL long active streak of thirteen consecutive games with five or more receptions. Not only that, but he’s nine receptions away from Keyshawn Johnson’s record for receptions in a season in franchise history and he’s 32 yards away from his third 1,000 yard season. His 98 receptions this season matches his total from 2021 where he played just 14 games due to the ACL tear suffered against the Saints.

Defensively, the Bucs are extremely banged up. Carlton Davis missed last week with a shoulder injury while Jamel Dean, Antoine Winfield Jr., Vita Vea, Carl Nassib, Mike Edwards, and Logan Ryan are all dealing with injuries. It may be wise to let some of them sit and heal up for an extra week ahead of their matchup against either the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles. Same could be said for Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs on the offensive side, but that would certainly leave Brady vulnerable for however long he’s in the game.

Julio Jones missed the matchup against the Falcons the first time around and may be looking to put on a show in the house he built - but he’s been dealing with a knee injury all season that he suffered in week one against the Cowboys and may see very limited time against his former team.

For the Falcons, the biggest change since their last meeting is a change at quarterback. Former University of Cincinnati standout and rookie Desmond Ridder has replaced Marcus Mariotta as the starting signal caller, but he’s missing former top-5 pick Kyle Pitts who was placed on season ending injured reserve. The offense still goes through the run game with Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgier leading the way.

The Buccaneers lead the all-time series 30-28 and are one win away from tying the longest winning streak in series history. The Bucs won six in a row from 1997-2003. Atlanta’s longest streak is five straight wins - twice - from 2008-2010 and again from 2016-2018.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Buccaneers are 4-point underdogs with an over/under of 40.5, meaning the oddsmakers likely believe that few starters will play on Sunday. The Bucs have won six of their last seven against Atlanta while the Falcons haven’t covered in five straight January games and have seen seven of their last eight games hit the under.

The Bucs and Falcons kickoff inside the Mercedes-Benz Arena on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET with the game broadcast on FOX. Adam Amin and Mark Schlereth will be on the call.

For more on this and all things Tampa Bay Buccaneers check out James Yarcho and David Harrison on the Locked On Bucs Podcast!