Division rivals square off in a highly anticipated match-up between the Atlanta Falcons (9-2) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4) this week. Though the Buccaneers have surprised plenty of NFL pundits and analysts this year, they face an uphill battle against the Falcons, who are riding a five-game winning streak into Tampa Bay.
These two teams are vying for a playoff spot in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL this year, despite the division having the worst team in the league (the Carolina Panthers with just one win so far). The Bucs have more urgency going in, but the Falcons have more momentum. Looking at common opponents over the past 11 games for both teams it's easy to see the Bucs have struggled mightily against teams the Falcons beat, even if only by a slim point margin.
Tampa Bay is coming off a seven-point loss to Baltimore last week, a team the Falcons beat by five points on November 11. The defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints destroyed the Bucs 31-6 in Week 6 while the Falcons won their Week 3 battle with the Saints by a field goal. And of course, the most important common opponent is each other, since these two teams last faced each other on November 7 in a game the Falcons won by 6 points at home.
Matt Ryan comes in with 2,715 yards and 19 touchdown passes with his star running back Michael Turner averaging 4.4 yards on 223 carries and about to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in this game after he notches his 26th yard in the contest.
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Tampa Bay's QB Josh Freeman has 2,261 yards with 15 touchdowns to show for it, so he's no slouch either. The issue is the running game for Tampa Bay, as their top two running backs (Cadillac Williams and LeGarrette Blount) have less yards combined than Turner's amassed on his own.
The Falcons have only gone down to the two teams from Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) so far this year and look like total locks to win the division with two games against Carolina left, a Monday night showdown with New Orleans, and a Week 15 game against the Seattle Seahawks who are currently under .500. The Bucs may not be much of a stumbling block at all barring a miracle performance from the whole squad on both sides of the football against the Falcons.
Tampa Bay's injuries are also going to play a factor in this game, and the defense is suffering the most with linebackers Quincy Black and Dekoda Watson listed as questionable and starting safety Cody Grimm out for the year. Corey Lynch will start in Grimm's place.
Look for the Falcons and their star receiver Roddy White (1,066 Yards, 7 TDs) to go to the air early and often in this one. Despite being away from home this time, they'll run up the score and win by at least two touchdowns if all goes well. Turner will blaze past 1,000 yards for the season and could have his best rushing day of the year if both Watson and Black don't play. Other than New Orleans, Tampa Bay is the best remaining team the Falcons will face on the remaining schedule, so they'll go in wanting to make a statement, and they will.