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Bucs' division hopes resting on showdown with Falcons

(Sports Network) – Seeing Josh Freeman in Tampa Bay’s old creamsicle uniforms may bring back memories of Doug Williams, Ricky Bell and Lee Roy Selmon.

It also reminds us of how putrid the Buccaneers started out before former head coach John McKay’s philosophies sunk in with the players. Once asked about the execution of his team’s offense, McKay quipped he was all for it.

Several more priceless quotes, a few playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title since then, the Bucs of today will honor their first years of inception with those classic orange uniforms this Sunday against the red-hot and NFC South-rival Atlanta Falcons from Raymond James Stadium. McKay will be posthumously inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor prior to the showdown.

Atlanta won the first meeting of the season, 27-21, back on Nov. 7 at the Georgia Dome. When asked if the Bucs are out for revenge after that loss, Freeman put it into perspective as best as he could.

“I wouldn’t say revenge, but yeah it’s definitely a big game,” he said. “If we want a shot at making the playoffs we’re going to have to win some games in our division, and it starts this week with Atlanta. We’re 7-4 and need to be 8-4 after this week.”

The previous time Tampa wore throwback uniforms, which came against Green Bay last season, Freeman made his first NFL start and helped defeat the Packers with one of his now-patented fourth-quarter comebacks. The youngster has collected a handful of those this season for the Buccaneers, who are indeed in the heat of a playoff race and could say this week will be a must-win atmosphere.

Tampa Bay is right in the thick of a jumbled NFC playoff picture, and any loss from here on out could be detrimental to their postseason hopes.

One of the youngest teams in the NFL, the Bucs are 2-2 in division play and had a two-game winning streak stopped with last week’s tough 17-10 loss in Baltimore. Freeman had no late-magic against the Ravens and threw for 162 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions on 17-of-37 passing.

Rookie running back LeGarrette Blount has been impressive when given an opportunity, and nobody understands that more than Freeman. The second-year signal-caller stated in his weekly press conference that sometimes he gets distracted by watching Blount take the carry instead of playing out the down. Morris may not mind too much, just as long as his young quarterback is completing passes.

Atlanta knows what’s at stake; if the team wins the rest of its games it will claim the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The 9-2 Falcons have won five in a row since a loss at Philadelphia on Oct. 17 and will begin a three-game road trip against the Bucs, Carolina and Seattle on Sunday.

“It’s great to get a winning season,” Falcons coach Mike Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But our expectations and our goals are a lot higher than that. We want to keep them internally, but we are progressing on our journey to where we want to be as a football team.”

The NFC South-leading Falcons are hoping to have the playoffs go through the Georgia Dome, where they own a 19-3 mark under Smith. Much of that credit goes to star quarterback Matt Ryan, who has been exceptional this season.

Ryan didn’t have to do much in last week’s 20-17 win over Green Bay, as he notched a 107.9 passer rating and has hit the 100 mark in that category for three straight weeks. The Falcons are 15-0 when Ryan has a rating of that magnitude, including a 5-0 mark this season. He also hasn’t thrown an interception in four straight weeks.

But business must also be taken care of on the road, and the Falcons will have a chance to prove their worth against a Tampa Bay team gunning to avenge an earlier loss. Both of Atlanta’s 2010 defeats have come on the road, and it has already made its claim for best team in the conference by outscoring Aaron Rodgers and the high-powered Packers in Week 12.

Running back Michael Turner took on Green Bay’s tough defense and ran for 110 yards and a score on 23 carries. He has rushed for more than 100 yards six times this season, including four times in his last five games, and his 974 rushing yards rank fifth in the NFL and second in the NFC. Turner, who’s also scored six of his seven rushing touchdowns this year over that five-game stretch, is aiming for his second-career 1,000-yard season and figures to have a good shot to do so against Tampa’s 27th-rated run defense.

The Falcons have a dangerously balanced offense and have shown to be stout on defense as well, which helps to explain the current position they’re in. Veteran defensive end John Abraham earned his team-leading ninth sack of the season last Sunday, when he dragged down Rodgers for a five-yard loss. He and the defense must dial it up a notch on Sunday, now that they’re the enemy squad imposing on Tampa Bay’s ceremonial weekend.

Photographs by cstreet.us, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.