The Falcons are 9-6 on the season and will try to finish with 10-plus wins in consecutive years for the first time in team history. They made franchise history by clinching a second straight playoff berth even before taking the field Monday night in New Orleans when Chicago lost to Green Bay on Sunday night.
Atlanta had won two straight and four of five games before suffering a 45-16 loss to passing monster Drew Brees and the Saints at the Superdome, a game in which the New Orleans quarterback broke the NFL's single-season passing mark previously held by Dolphins Hall of Famer Dan Marino. That wasn't a good sign for a Falcons team that allowed nearly 500 yards of offense (463) to the Saints just weeks away from entering the playoffs as a Wild Card team, but head coach Mike Smith put a realistic spin on the situation.
"We're excited about the opportunity," he said of making the playoffs. "It doesn't feel good right now after the performance that we had [Monday night], but we can't worry about the playoffs. We've got to go out and play good football this Sunday and get this bad taste out of our mouth."
The Falcons' opponent in the postseason's first round is unknown, though they can't afford to lay down for the Buccaneers after losing the first meeting with their NFC South rivals back on Sept. 25, before Tampa Bay underwent an implosion. In an ugly performance for both teams, the Falcons dropped a 16-13 decision at Raymond James Stadium that day, with Atlanta's running game virtually extinct and quarterback Matt Ryan passing for 330 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Falcons' signal-caller was sacked four times in the contest, but was able to rally his team for four wins over the next five games after that loss.
Atlanta will open the playoffs on the road against either New Orleans, San Francisco, Dallas or the New York Giants. Its fate will be determined following the outcome of Sunday's games.
Tampa Bay's destiny has already been decided, and a season-worst nine-game losing streak and ineffective results from quarterback Josh Freeman are to blame. The team is riding its longest slide since opening the 1985 campaign with an 0-9 mark en route to a lowly 2-14 finish and hasn't dropped 10 in a row in the same season since losing the first 12 games of the 1977 schedule before a 2-12 ending.
As a result, head coach Raheem Morris could be in jeopardy of losing his job at season's end. The Buccaneers' downfall hasn't been totally his fault, since Freeman has regressed from his 2010 performance by throwing 14 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions so far this season. He had 25 touchdown passes to just six picks a year ago.
"I think I answered this question a couple weeks ago...I will never fire myself," Morris said Monday, two days after his team's 48-16 loss at Carolina. "You don't go from being a Coach of a Year candidate to being the worst coach in the league to get fired within a year. It's about us. It's a little bit of everything."
It remains to be seen if management wants to go a different route for 2012, but Morris seems to have established the trust from his players and staff.
The Bucs, who hope to prove that this season was just an aberration, have been blown out for much of the losing streak, and last Saturday's defeat to the Panthers was the seventh game in which they allowed 30 or more points in 2011.
Tampa Bay is a young team that's still learning the ropes, which makes last year's 10-6 mark looking like it could have been smoke and mirrors. The team hopes to end a six-game losing streak on the road as well on Sunday.
Tampa Bay owns a 19-17 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta and snapped a string of five straight losses to the Falcons with the previously-noted win at Raymond James Stadium back in September. The Buccaneers have left with a defeat in three consecutive visits to the Georgia Dome, however, with the most recent being a 27-21 setback last season. Tampa Bay hasn't recorded a victory in Atlanta since a 31-7 rout in 2007, also the year of the Bucs' last season sweep of the Falcons.
Smith is 5-2 against the Bucs as a head coach, while Morris earned his first win in five career encounters with both Smith and the Falcons with that Week 3 result.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman (3318 passing yards, 14 TD, 19 INT) was bailed out by a stingy defense in the first meeting with Atlanta, as he passed for only 180 yards with a pair of interceptions and no touchdowns. He did run for 35 yards and a score in that game and is coming off a better performance last week in the loss at Carolina, passing for 274 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also collected his fourth rushing touchdown of the season in that game. Freeman needs 82 passing yards Sunday to become the first Tampa Bay quarterback with 3,400-plus yards in back-to-back campaigns, but has recorded a rating of 100 or better only once this season and has been picked off nine times in his last six games. Second-year wide receiver Mike Williams (64 receptions, 3 TD) probably can't wait to get this season over with after grabbing 11 touchdown passes in his rookie year but coming well short of that mark in 2011. He leads the Bucs in receiving yards (740) and is second in receptions. While the Bucs are 16th in passing, they're 27th in points scored and 30th in rushing. Running back LeGarrette Blount (769 rushing yards, 5 TD) had 81 yards on 24 carries against Atlanta back in Week 3, but was benched last week for fumbling and finished with 11 yards on two carries. He is averaging just 31 yards per game in the past four weeks.
The Falcons have been stout against the run this season and are eighth overall in that category, allowing 101.1 yards per game on the ground. Blount had a decent game with 81 yards in the first matchup, while Atlanta failed to record a sack against the Buccaneers. Defensive end John Abraham (34 tackles, 9 sacks) needs one more sack for his seventh career season of 10 or more, while safeties Thomas DeCoud (78 tackles, 4 INT) and William Moore (48 tackles, 2 INT) each had an interception of Freeman back in September's loss. DeCoud led the defense against New Orleans with 10 total tackles (seven solo) and one pass defensed, and has recorded double-digit tackles in four games this season. Defensive tackle Vance Walker (18 tackles, 2 sacks) had the only sack of Brees, while cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (49 tackles, 2 INT) and Dominique Franks (10 tackles, INT) had an interception apiece on Monday. The Falcons have forced at least one turnover in their last 19 consecutive road games, the longest current active streak in the NFL, but now they're back in the Peach State. Linebackers Curtis Lofton (133 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Sean Weatherspoon (109 tackles, 4 sacks) combined for 11 tackles Monday, with Lofton posting nine.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Falcons running back Michael Turner (1,168 rushing yards, 9 TD) had his worst outing of the season against the Bucs back in Week 3, as he was bottled up for 20 yards on 11 carries. He hasn't done much lately for Atlanta's 20th-rated ground attack either, averaging 56 yards over the past five weeks with one touchdown over that span. Turner ran for 39 yards on 11 touches against the Saints in a game Atlanta needed to pass most of the time because of a lopsided score. The Falcons will try to get Turner off and running immediately against the Bucs' porous run defense this week. Ryan (4071 passing yards, 27 TD, 12 INT) went over the 4,000-yard passing mark in a season for the first time in his career on Monday and is within sight of Jeff George's club record of 4,143 passing yards set in 1995. Ryan also tied career highs with 32 completions and 52 pass attempts on Monday and finished the game with a 92.9 passer rating. The Falcons are 22-0 when "Matty Ice" hits the 100 rating mark over his career, and he is 5-1 in his past six starts versus the Bucs. Tight end Tony Gonzalez (79 receptions yards, 7 TD) is headed to the Pro Bowl for a 12th straight season, while wideout Roddy White (96 receptions, 1227 yards, 8 TD) is four receptions away from his second straight 100-catch season and has recorded back-to-back games with 10-plus grabs. He has caught 10 or more passes in three of the last five games.
Even though the Falcons recorded 325 total yards on Tampa Bay in the first meeting, the Bucs still managed to squeeze out a win thanks to a stingy front line and stout run defense. The Falcons had just 30 rushing yards that day, while defensive end Adrian Clayborn (41 tackles, 8 sacks), tackle Brian Price (23 tackles, 3 sacks) and linebackers Mason Foster (78 tackles, 2 sacks, INT) and Dekoda Watson (21 tackles, 1 sack) each had a sack. Clayborn is tied for second among NFC rookies in sacks and also forced a fumble against Atlanta. Tampa Bay's defense was eaten alive by the Panthers last week, however, as Carolina racked up 433 yards of offense that included 270 on the ground. The Bucs are last in the NFL in points allowed, 31st against the rush and 30th in total yards allowed. End Michael Bennett (37 tackles, 4 sacks) had the lone sack of the Panthers' Cam Newton last week and Foster led the way with a team- best six stops. The Bucs allowed three rushing scores in the loss, and Newton passed for three more. Bucs veteran cornerback Ronde Barber (75 tackles, 3 INT) had an interception in the first meeting with the Falcons and has started 198 straight games, most by a cornerback in NFL history.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Buccaneers haven't swept a season series from Atlanta since the 2007 campaign, but have the offensive firepower to do so. Even though they're 4-11 on the season, they don't lack talent on both sides of the football. Things just haven't worked in Tampa's favor this year after a 10-win season in 2010. Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow could make a difference and has caught a pass in 91 consecutive games. He leads the team with 68 catches and could give Atlanta linebackers Lofton and Weatherspoon trouble on Sunday.
Falcons rookie wideout Julio Jones is even more threatening as Winslow and owns six touchdown receptions this season, including four in the last three games. He has also hauled in a touchdown pass in three consecutive games while racking up 317 yards on 16 receptions in that same span. Jones caught six passes for 115 yards in the first meeting with Tampa Bay, and will be a player the Bucs must key on in the rematch.
It will be a battle of bulky running backs on Sunday, with Turner and Blount carrying the offensive load for their teams. Both players haven't performed that well in the last few weeks, but each could set the tone for their respective clubs on New Year's Day. Turner may not see a ton of action, however, since the Falcons are playoff-bound.
Practice makes perfect, right? The Falcons have to believe that Sunday's game against the Buccaneers will be the final preparation for the "second season", or they may have all sorts of problems trying to straighten their act out before the playoffs commence the following week. After getting its gong rung by the mallet that was Brees and the Saints, Atlanta has to come out swinging versus the Bucs despite the fact the game may mean nothing to both teams. Tampa Bay, of course, is hoping to save the job of Morris and put to rest an elongated losing streak that has dashed their postseason hopes. That streak will sadly continue into the 2012 season, however, and continue to raise questions if Morris is suited to continue as coach.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Buccaneers 17