The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have left no doubt that they're fully capable of coming back and winning games. The hopeful playoff contenders still need to prove they're ready to truly compete with the NFL's elite teams, however.
The young and emerging Buccaneers get another chance to state their case on Sunday, when the defending NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons fly into Raymond James Stadium for a key early-season divisional clash that could have important ramifications down the road.
Tampa Bay was perhaps the league's most pleasant surprise in 2010, coming out of nowhere to win 10 games following a dreadful 3-13 campaign in enthusiastic head coach Raheem Morris' first season at the helm. That glossy record came with a bit of a caveat, however, as the Bucs feasted on an inordinate amount of dregs while playing one of the NFL's easier schedules.
The Buccaneers went 9-1 against opponents that ended last season below .500, but struggled to find success when the competition became stiffer. Tampa Bay lost five of six matchups with teams that finished with winning records, and the lone positive result came in the Week 17 finale over a playoff-bound New Orleans squad that rested several of its regulars.
Two of those defeats came at the hands of the Falcons, who vaulted to the head of the NFC class by compiling a stellar 13-3 regular-season mark before floundering in a home loss to Green Bay in the Divisional Round of the conference playoffs.
Tampa Bay gave the powerful Falcons all they could handle in both of those meetings, however. Atlanta had to hold on for a 27-21 win at the Georgia Dome in November, then came through with two unanswered touchdowns in the final 10 minutes to rally for a 28-24 decision at Raymond James Stadium in Week 13.
The Falcons have prevailed in five straight encounters with the Buccaneers, with Tampa's last victory in the series a 24-9 triumph at home in 2008.
The winner of Sunday's showdown will hold at least a share of first place in the NFC South, and both clubs come in off thrilling come-from-behind wins after season-opening setbacks.
Tampa Bay overcame a lethargic first half and a 17-point deficit at intermission in last weekend's 24-20 road ousting of Minnesota, outscoring the Vikings by a 24-3 margin after the break. Running back LeGarrette Blount capped the comeback with a short touchdown run with just 31 seconds remaining, his second score of the afternoon.
Quarterback Josh Freeman did his part by throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Arrelious Benn with 6:39 left to play. The outstanding young triggerman has now led the Bucs to a win eight times while trailing in the fourth quarter over his 27 career starts.
Atlanta was also in danger of staring down the barrel of an 0-2 start before rising up in the final moments of this past Sunday's highly-anticipated battle with the Michael Vick-led Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome. Down 10 points with under 11 minutes to go, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan engineered a pair of long touchdown drives to pull out an entertaining and seemingly improbable 35-31 win.
Ryan tossed a career-high four touchdown passes in orchestrating the ninth fourth-quarter rally of his four-year career, six of which have come in Atlanta's last 16 outings.
Tampa Bay still holds a 18-17 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta despite its recent lack of success against the Falcons, but has suffered home-and-home sweeps at the hands of its fellow NFC South member in each of the last two seasons. In addition to last December's narrow win at Raymond James Stadium and their 27-21 verdict over the Bucs at the Georgia Dome during Week 9 of last year, the Falcons also bested Tampa by a 20-10 count on the road in the 2009 regular-season finale.
Atlanta's Mike Smith is 5-1 against the Bucs as a head coach, while Morris has yet to win in four career encounters with both Smith and the Falcons.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Though hardly an explosive group, the Atlanta offense possesses good balance and a top-notch quarterback in Ryan (514 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT), who owns a stellar 34-14 regular-season record as a starter and showed his mettle by leading his team out of a double-digit hole last week while constantly under pressure from a persistent Philadelphia pass rush. The poised former first- round pick also has a premier receiver to throw to in All-Pro wideout Roddy White (11 receptions, 1 TD), the NFL's leader with 115 receptions last season, though veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez (12 receptions, 155 yards, 2 TD) has been the team's go-to guy in the early going and played a huge part in last Sunday's win, with the future Hall of Famer hauling in seven Ryan passes for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rookie wideout Julio Jones (7 receptions), the Falcons' first-round choice in this past April's draft, has had an uneven beginning to his pro career, but the 22-year-old is a rare talent whom the club is counting on quickly developing into a needed big-play threat. Atlanta has traditionally been a strong running team under Smith, and top rusher Michael Turner (214 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) is off to a terrific start to 2011 by recording a pair of 100-yard efforts over the first two games. Protection has been an issue as of late, as Ryan's been sacked nine times already, but the front line should benefit from stabilizing center Todd McClure's expected return this week from knee surgery that's kept him out of action thus far.
Turner could be in line for another productive afternoon against an undersized Tampa defense that's surrendered an unwanted 156 rushing yards per game on the year, the second-worst total in the NFL, and was gashed for 186 yards on the ground by the Vikings a week ago. The Buccaneers also rank just 28th overall in total defense (414.5 ypg), but do come into the game with some momentum after holding Minnesota to 114 total yards and three points in the second half of last Sunday's test. The secondary is the unit's strength, with cornerback Aqib Talib (5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) an accomplished ball-hawk who's garnered 16 interceptions since breaking into the league in 2008 and safety Sean Jones (15 tackles, 1 sack) lending a soothing veteran presence to the back end, but the Bucs could stand to generate more pressure on the quarterback after registering just two sacks in their two games. One of them came last week from promising rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster (17 tackles, 1 sack), who also racked up 10 tackles and forced a fumble against the Vikings in an impressive performance.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman (502 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) doesn't often have his name immediately mentioned when the topic of the game's best quarterbacks is discussed, but there's no question that the 23-year-old's excellent accuracy and leadership skills have been vital to Tampa Bay's resurgence. He's completed 67.6 percent of his throws so far and was especially on point last week, hitting on 22-of-31 attempts for 243 yards despite the Vikings neutralizing top target Mike Williams (5 receptions, 1 TD), who finished with just one catch for minus-four yards. Freeman adjusted and deftly utilized his secondary receivers, with slot man Preston Parker (10 receptions, 142 yards) posting career highs of six catches and 98 yards and both tight end Kellen Winslow (10 receptions) and wideout Dezmon Briscoe (6 receptions) making notable contributions as well. The Buccaneers currently stand eighth in the league in pass attempts (77), mostly because they've been playing from behind a lot, which contradicts Morris' philosophy of establishing the run and wearing down the opposition. Tampa Bay is averaging just 80.5 rushing yards per game (25th overall) at the moment, though Blount (86 rushing yards, 2 TD) displayed signs of getting back on track by bulldozing his way to 67 yards and two scores in the second half of the Minnesota game. The powerful second-year pro splits time in the backfield with versatile veteran Earnest Graham (31 rushing yards), the team's leader with 13 receptions.
The Atlanta defense has hardly been a stone wall during the early stage of this season, having permitted 71 points (tied 28th overall) and entering the week 27th in both total yards (412.0 ypg) and passing yards (301.5 ypg) allowed. The Falcons gave up 447 yards to the high-powered Eagles last Sunday, 314 of which came through the air, but did force three Vick turnovers -- including a fumble late in the first half that was recovered by end Ray Edwards (3 tackles) and returned deep into Philadelphia territory that was one of the game's most pivotal plays. Fellow lineman Kroy Biermann (7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) took an interception back 50 yards for a score in the Falcons' season-opening loss at Chicago, one of the team's four takeaways this year. Atlanta has been solid in stopping the run, with linebackers Sean Weatherspoon (20 tackles) and Curtis Lofton (18 tackles, 2 PD) heading up a front seven that's holding opponents to a respectable 3.9 yards per carry, while a pass rush directed by four-time Pro Bowl end John Abraham (6 tackles, 2 sacks) and Biermann can be quite formidable.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Start fast. Though both of these teams sport quarterbacks with proven track records late in games, jumping out to a quick and decisive lead would certainly ease the burden on Ryan and Freeman. The Buccaneers have been especially sluggish at the outset, having been outscored by a 37-13 margin in the first half, and coming back on the talented Falcons would likely be a more difficult assignment than what they faced from the sputtering Vikings last week.
Pressure the passer/protect the quarterback. Atlanta hasn't provided much of the latter for Ryan this season, having let its franchise signal-caller be sacked nine times in the two games. Tampa Bay, on the other end, didn't register a single sack of Ryan in last season's pair of meetings, a contributing factor to the Falcons prevailing on both occasions, and need to improve that aspect to have its best chance of winning on Sunday.
Special teams. The turning point of last December's four-point victory by the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium was return specialist Eric Weems' 102-yard score on a fourth-quarter kickoff that helped ignite Atlanta's comeback, while the Bucs nearly pulled off the upset at the Georgia Dome in the previous matchup because of a kick return touchdown by Micheal Spurlock. With a close contest expected on Sunday, special teams could play a crucial role.
If the Buccaneers are indeed poised to stamp themselves as a contender in the tough NFC South, knocking off an Atlanta team that's exhibited some vulnerability in a few key spots through the first two weeks at home would go a long way towards achieving that goal. That still may be easier said than done, however, as Tampa Bay's yet to put together a full 60 minutes of solid football and its young defense has experienced some growing pains which the opportunistic Falcons could very well capitalize on. In what shapes up to be another nail-biter between the clubs that likely won't be decided until the final quarter, Atlanta's more balanced and efficient offense may be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Buccaneers 27