Two plays changed the fortunes of the NFC South in 2010.
The first in Atlanta, it was a 4th-and-1 at the Atlanta 3 yard line with only 3 minutes left in the game, the Falcons leading Tampa Bay 27-21. The Falcons held, preventing the Bucs from scoring a game defining go ahead touchdown.
The second was in Tampa where a kickoff return for a touchdown that brought the Falcons back within 3 points when it looked like the Bucs were primed to put them away. The score energized the Falcons to rally and hold on for a 28-24 win.
Win those two games and the Bucs head to the playoffs as NFC South division champions and the Falcons are at home wondering what could've been.
It didn't happen that way and the Bucs didn't get the job done against Detroit, either. That's the difference between being a 10-6 also ran and a 13-3 division champion with a bye.
So the mantra this week is to end the Falcons recent dominance in the series (5 straight wins). Make that one more play that turns the tide in Tampa Bay's favor.
One thing's for certain. After consecutive weeks of slow starts, the Bucs can't afford another one this week.
For two weeks now, Josh Freeman and his offense has been downright terrible in the first half. Freeman has failed to extend drives, his receivers drop passes, his lineman and backs blow blocking assignments and he himself has held the ball too long or thrown inaccurate passes.
Then, as if a switch goes on, Freeman dons Superman's cape and becomes unstoppable. It was too little too late against the Detroit Lions but Freeman had his 8th 4th quarter come-from-behind victory of the season last week against the Vikings.
The Bucs aren't getting enough production from receivers Mike Williams and Regus Benn. In Williams' defense, opponents are rolling coverages (according to Freeman triple coverage at time) to make sure he doesn't beat them. Until Benn and the other receivers can make opposing defenses pay - it will remain the same.
Atlanta comes in with the 28th ranked pass defense in the NFL and it's showed. Atlanta surrendered 30.5 ppg in their first two outings.
Advantage: Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Running Game vs. Atlanta Run Defense
The Falcons defense hasn't been all that great in stopping the run, either, surrendering 110 yards a game on the ground thus far, putting them at 18th in the NFL.
Tampa Bay's running game finally got on track in the second half of the Minnesota game, but they still find themselves a disappointing 25th in the league in rushing.
If the Bucs can get LeGarrette Blount going against the suspect Falcons defense, it could be the turning point in the football game.
Atlanta Falcons Passing Game vs. Tampa Bay Pass Defense
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was supposed to benefit from the addition of new weapons on offense but thus far the Falcons' passing game has been a disappointment. The culprit is the Falcons' struggling o-line, which has surrendered the 3 most sacks in the NFL (9).
Ryan has taken some vicious shots already this season and it's been amazing he's been able to get up off the ground each time - a testament to Matty Ice's toughness.
If Ryan gets time to throw, he has a galaxy of stars as targets. Future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez, Pro Bowler Roddy White and newcomer Julio Jones all present matchup nightmares for any defense. Even with these weapons, Atlanta is just 21st in the league in passing offense.
While the Bucs only have 2 sacks to show for their efforts thus far this season, Tampa Bay is significantly improved at rushing the passer. Still, the Bucs haven't been quite as effective against the pass as they have in past seasons.
Slow starts have plagued the defense in the first half of games as they've allowed teams to convert on third down way too frequently in the first half.
Tampa Bay ranks 18th against the pass.
Atlanta's Running Game vs. Tampa Bay's Run Defense
Another year, another season with trouble stopping the run for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay finds themselves near the bottom of the NFL in rush defense for the third straight year, surrendering 156 yds a game on the ground. Most of the damage is done in the first half against the Bucs defense but once the intermission comes, they seem to settle down in the second half and play decent defense. Tampa Bay is giving up about 4.6 yards a carry on the ground.
The Falcons come in boasting the 9th best running game in the NFL. Michael Turner has rushed for 214 yards, a touchdown and is averaging a whopping 6.9 yards a carry.
A big key in this football game will be the Buccaneers ability to slow down the bruising Turner. He averaged 95 yards a game and scored 3 touchdowns in their two meetings last season.
The Bucs' biggest transaction of the off-season was the signing former Falcons' punter and kickoff specialist Michael Koenen. Koenen has been sensational thus far, averaging 49.3 yards a punt and has put seen 7 of his 9 kickoffs result in touchbacks. In two kickoff returns against him, the returners were limited to just 8.5 yards a return. It wasn't much better for the punt returners, who are averaging just 5.3 yards a return against the Bucs.
The Bucs don't get much production from returner Preston Parker, who averages 23.3 yards a kickoff return and 13.5 yards a punt return respectively.
Connor Barth is perfect on the season in 3 attempts.
Atlanta's new punter, Matt Bosch, isn't quite matching up with Koenen, averaging just 36.8 yards a punt. Former Buccaneer Matt Bryant is 2-for-2 thus far.
Eric Weems, who broke the hearts of Buccaneer fans with a kickoff return for a touchdown, is averaging 22.2 yds a kickoff return this year. Weems also returns punts, averaging just 7.3 yards a return.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Raheem Morris is in his 3rd season in Tampa Bay, he is 14-20.
Mike Smith is in his 4th season in Atlanta. He is 34-16, 0-2 in the playoffs.
By the Numbers
- Tampa Bay leads the all time series 18-17
- Tampa Bay is 11-8 at home against the Falcons
- Atlanta has won five straight games in the series and 3 of their last 4 in Tampa
- Both teams are -1 in turnover ratio
- Four of the last five meetings have been decided by six or less points.
- Matt Ryan is 7-1 in his last eight starts against division opponents and has won 5 straight against Tampa Bay.
For most of the week, I had the Falcons in this game. The Bucs haven't shown the ability to show they could play a 60 minute game and that just wasn't going to get it done against a team like Atlanta.
The more I thought about this game, though, I slowly changed my mind. Atlanta's not playing good football right now, either, and Matt Ryan has been getting killed. Sure, Michael Turner scares me - as he should considering the horrible run defense the Bucs have been presenting thus far - but if they can keep him under control they can overcome his contributions to the game.
I think the Bucs will be able to get the running game going against Atlanta and I think Josh Freeman will make some big plays in the passing game.
Moreover, I think after the physically and emotionally draining game against the Philadelphia Vicks, it's going to be really difficult for the Falcons to get up for a tough, hard hitting road game in the September Tampa heat.
I also think that Raheem Morris has pointed his team to this game. If the Bucs hope to be a division champion - this is the game they must win. They must hold serve at home within the division.
Finally, it's about frakkin' time the Bucs finally got one against Atlanta, isn't it?
Prediction: Tampa Bay 23, Atlanta 20