The Bucs have lost five straight and must beat Atlanta today to avoid their third 10-loss or worse season in the last five years. The Falcons have locked up the NFC's number one seed and need to avoid injuries this afternoon so that they can begin the playoffs at full strength. Atlanta beat the Buccaneers 24-23 starting Tampa Bay’s tumble on November 25. Today they meet at the Georgia Dome in a pseudo exhibition game.
Last week Atlanta never trailed in a 31-18 victory against Detroit. The win guaranteed the Falcons a first round playoff bye and home field advantage throughout the conference postseason. With a 7-0 mark at home the Falcons will be a favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl – albeit a shaky one.
The Falcons have played the easiest schedule in the league and the second lightest slate among all teams in the last five years. It is likely that their matchups have yielded just two opponents all season that will qualify for the playoffs. Of those possibilities, Denver and Dallas had to travel to Atlanta while the Falcons knocked off Washington on the road. Redskins franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III was knocked out due to injury for a portion of that contest.
Atlanta has also benefited from ill-timed turnovers by opponents. Cam Newton fumbled away a Panthers win in September while Peyton Manning tossed three first quarter interceptions against the Falcons. Drew Brees was picked off five times when Atlanta beat New Orleans on November 29.
Interestingly enough, when Matt Ryan isn't his best Atlanta survives. The Cardinals intercepted Ryan five times in week eleven but an inept Arizona offense completed just 11 of 27 throws for 41 yards squandering a 13-0 lead.
When Atlanta clipped Tampa Bay two Bucs turnovers were crucial. Giving the ball away has been an epidemic for Tampa during this five game skid. The Bucs are minus-10 in turnover margin during the streak and QB Josh Freeman has thrown eight interceptions in the last two weeks.
During a mid-season four game winning streak, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin was one of the best weapons in the NFL. He led all backs and receivers in total yards. During the quartet of wins he averaged 192 total yards a game while scoring six times and averaging more than six yards a carry. In the last five contests Martin has managed 89 total yards a game, 3.3 yards per rush, and scored three touchdowns.
Draft position and momentum going into the offseason are in play for Tampa Bay while the Falcons must wait until the playoffs to try and convince skeptics of how good they actually are. Atlanta has not won a playoff game since 2004. Mike Smith and company would be well advised to bench starters and ensure they are healthy with playoff pressure kicking off in two weeks.