NFL Preview – Tampa Bay (5-2) at Atlanta (5-2)
(Sports Network) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman’s ability to lead fourth-quarter comebacks is starting to get noticed around the league.
After rallying his team to yet another victory last weekend, Freeman and the Buccaneers will try to grab sole possession of first place in the NFC South from the Atlanta Falcons as the two clubs battle it out this weekend at the Georgia Dome.
A first-round pick by the Buccaneers in the 2009 draft, Freeman owns eight victories over his 17-game career, and six of those have been fourth-quarter comebacks. His latest came last weekend in Arizona, where Tampa Bay blew a 17- point lead before Freeman helped guide his club to a 38-35 victory over the Cardinals and into a tie with idle Atlanta for first in the division.
“Like he almost did that on purpose [Sunday], he’s throwing the game so he can get another fourth quarter comeback,” joked Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. “No. You know he’s resilient, man. He’s wise beyond his years.”
Freeman didn’t do it alone. Running back LeGarrett Blount actually scored the go-ahead touchdown from one yard out with 5:13 left in the game, but that run was set up by Freeman’s 53-yard pass to rookie wideout Arrelious Benn. The Cardinals then drove to the Buccaneers’ three-yard line, but cornerback Aqib Talib sealed the win with an interception — his second of the game — with 2:15 to play.
Tampa Bay picked up its second straight win and third in its last four games while also improving to 3-0 on the road this season. The Bucs have won five straight contests as the guest dating back to last year.
They’ll have a tough time extending that streak on Sunday, given that the Falcons are 16-3 at home since Mike Smith took over head coaching duties prior to the 2008 season. That includes victories in all three games this year at the Georgia Dome, where Atlanta was last a 39-32 winner over Cincinnati on Oct. 24 — coming back after blowing a 24-3 halftime lead of its own — before having the bye this past weekend.
Atlanta’s break gave Smith and his Falcons an extended look at Freeman’s heroics.
“I read something about [Freeman’s] had six come-from-behind victories in the short time he’s been the starting quarterback,” said Smith on Monday. “They obviously are playing with a lot of confidence. He’s a big, athletic quarterback that has two young receivers that I think are coming into their own, and their running game is something that you have to be concerned with as well.”
Atlanta’s offense will present plenty of challenges in its own rights. Wide receiver Roddy White caught 11 passes for 201 yards with a pair of touchdowns versus Cincinnati and was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Month after finishing October with 29 receptions, 489 yards and three touchdowns in four games.
The Falcons have won four straight at home dating back to last year and have taken five of six overall since a Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh.
Given that the NFC South contains the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, it has to be considered a surprise that the Falcons and Bucs are battling for first place this late in the season. Despite identical 5-2 records, this game tilts towards Atlanta, which is home and coming off a bye week that got several players healthy. Freeman will find a way to keep it close, but Tampa Bay will eventually fall to the might of the Georgia Dome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Buccaneers 21