Sunday’s game against rivals the Atlanta Falcons is more than just another game, it’s a statement game to end all statement games. The Falcons come to Tampa leading the NFC South with and NFC leading 9-2 record. Atlanta had their statement game last week against the Packers and managed to make a pretty convincing argument that they are in fact the best team in the NFC. This week, it’s Tampa’s turn. With a win the Bucs can come within a game of the NFC South lead and come that much closer to pulling off the impossible and winning the division, a feat that will most likely grant whomever is at the top a first round bye in the playoffs. The Bucs are hoping that team is them.
It’s quickly becoming cliche to say Josh Freeman needs to have a big game. I hate to sound like the little boy that cried wolf, but this is for sure the game Freeman needs to explode. The times he has in the past it has propelled the Bucs to wins. The passing game has taken a nose dive the past few weeks as Freeman has failed to top 200 yards in two consecutive weeks. The passing game is ranked 24th in the NFL as a result. However the passing game had a decent time in Atlanta just four weeks ago. Since then, the Atlanta secondary has gotten no better, in fact it’s ranked 27th in the league. This is a stat that has to intrigue the offense and give the quarterback and his receiving core a boost of swagger. Kellen Winslow got dialed up in big spots against Baltimore and you can bet your bottom dollar that will continue into this week. Don’t expect Winslow to get every single throw, he may only get the ball thrown his way twice, but you can rest assured those two times will be either in the endzone or close to it. Also look for Mike Williams to stretch the field and go vertical in big ways. He’s a big target for Freeman and was called on 4 times for 89 yards and a TD in week 9 in Atlanta. Creative play calling may see a much welcomed return to the playbook for Sunday’s game. Coach Raheem Morris isn’t going to let any chances slip away and has shown in the past he’s willing to get dirty with his plays to get points (See the Donald Penn TD reception against the 49ers).
The running game will be featured prominently in the offense. The Bucs were pretty much shutdown in the run game the last time around, and LaGarrette Blount was ‘stuffed’ (yeah that’s in quotes) on a fourth down play near the end of the game. Expect him to extract revenge this week. That is, however, easier said than done. The Falcons boast the league’s 6th best rushing defense will have to defend against the Bucs 13th ranked rushing attack. Cadillac Williams and LaGarrette Blount combined for only 72 yards on the ground in the first outing and may not get much more than that this week. That being said, it may just be that little extra effort that puts the Bucs over the top this time, remember Tampa only lost by 6 points in “Hotlanta”, and will definitely be looking pretty if even combined the rushing game cracks 100. Again, this is easier said than done. Blount did rush for 55 yards against a really solid Ravens defense last week which should give him some confidence in the way he runs Sunday in Raymond James Stadium.
Defensively it’s safe to say the Bucs are hot. Even though they did lose last week, the defense looked, at times, electric. Aqib Talib added to his team leading interception total and managed to make Anquan Boldin and T.J Houshmandzadeh basically invisible. Ray Rice was held under 100 yards and only 17 points were surrendered. A loss is still a loss and the defense did get burned as many times as it looked amazing. Todd Heap had a long TD catch and run that proved to be a deciding factor. There was a pass interference call just before halftime that resulted in a Ravens TD. Errors such as these MUST be avoided if the Buccaneer’s want any chance of winning. The young defensive front will be tested heavily against the massive Michael Turner and his explosiveness. The Falcons rank 8th in rushing and the Bucs 27th in defending it. If big guys like Gerald McCoy and Stylez White can have big games and stop the run, if even for a drive or two, the Bucs chances of winning go up dramatically. Matt Ryan is alway dangerous and it will be the defensive match-up of the day as he leads his receiving corps against the Bucs top 10 secondary. The Falcons are ranked 14th in the passing game, but they have the ability to play like the best. If Roddy White gets loose, Bucs fans will have to endure not only his stats, but he is big mouth as well. look for the secondary to double him up, shut him down and silence his tongue today. Tony Gonzalez is a big redzone threat as well, look for Matt Ryan to rely on him in big spots much the way Freeman relies on Winslow to get him out of big spots for the Bucs. Bottom line: error reduction will be key. Plus Tampa needs to make up for the loss of Cody Grimm. Who would have guessed that would be a talking point at the beginning of the season.
So the bottom line is basically, Freeman and the offense need to step up when the have the ball in their hands and put up points the defense can work with because with a high powered offense like Atlanta, every the points helps. Realistically, this is a very winnable game for Tampa Bay. They only lost by six on the road in Atlanta earlier this year and the gameplay of the Falcons, albeit as hot as it has gotten, is still fresh in the minds of this staff an team. From here on out, the Bucs schedule is pretty winnable. They face Detroit, Washington, Seattle and New Orleans. With the exception of the Saints, the Bucs can easily win all those games. With a victory Sunday, the Bucs can only help their playoff chances. The other 8-3 and 7-4 teams in the NFC can very easily lose two of their last four games, placing Tampa, hypothesizing that they win out, in one of the two Wild Card seeds. Then again, as easily as the other teams can lose, so can the Bucs. Tampa Bay has the advantage of starting off the final leg of the season with a divisional game that can light a fire under this team that can blast them into the playoffs. Only time will tell.