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NFL Preview - Atlanta (9-2) at Tampa Bay (7-4)



By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

(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.

SERIES HISTORY

Tampa Bay holds a 18-16 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta, but the Falcons have won the last four meetings between the divisional foes following the above-mentioned 27-21 victory at the Georgia Dome in November. Atlanta swept last year's home-and-home set with the Buccaneers, delivering a 20-10 verdict at Raymond James Stadium in the 2009 regular-season finale to halt a two-game road losing streak against Tampa Bay.

Smith is 4-1 against the Bucs as a head coach, while Morris has yet to win in three career matchups with both Smith and the Falcons.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

Ryan (2,715 passing yards, 19 TD, 5 INT) is 19-1 all-time at the Georgia Dome, but knows he can build on that later in the year with the focus now on getting some wins on the road. The Falcons are 6-0 at home this season, but sport a 3-2 mark away from the Georgia Dome. In order to register a sixth straight win, which would be the franchise's longest streak since a nine-game surge during the 1998 Super Bowl season, the Falcons received an excellent performance from Turner (974 rushing yards, 7 TD), who plowed his way to 107 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Atlanta will need another one of those types of games against a Tampa Bay's defense which is allowing 132.5 rushing yards per game. Since joining the Falcons as a free agent in 2008, Turner has rushed for 34 touchdowns, a total that ranks second in the NFL among running backs during that time, behind only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Ryan passed for 235 yards and one touchdown in the first meeting with the Bucs this season and aims for his fifth straight victory in this series. He's been able to keep the ball out of the opposition's hands as well, as the Falcons have not allowed a turnover in a club-record four straight games. Over the last four weeks the Falcons have also posted a plus-six turnover differential. Wideout Roddy White (84 receptions, 1,066 yards, 7 TD) is Ryan's top target and is aiming to resume his productive season.

The Buccaneers suffered a big injury in the secondary against the Ravens, as rookie safety Cody Grimm (57 tackles, 2 INT) was lost for the season with a broken leg suffered on an interception return by cornerback Aqib Talib. Grimm was the starter three weeks into the season after Tanard Jackson was suspended and has to be placed on injured reserve. There are many solutions the Bucs could go with to fill the void, including moving veteran cornerback Ronde Barber (57 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) back to that spot. Corey Lynch (6 tackles) seems to be the most likeliest of candidates, and moving Barber out of his customary position against the likes of White and tight end Tony Gonzalez may not work to Tampa Bay's advantage. With Atlanta having the 13th-rated pass attack and seventh-ranked scoring offense in the league, it'll be interesting to see how the Bucs respond in the defensive backfield. Tampa Bay linebacker and leading tackler Barrett Ruud (83 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had a team-high nine stops last week, while Talib (38 tackles, 6 INT) recorded his team-best sixth pick of 2010. Talib was involved in an altercation with a referee after Sunday's game as well, but won't be fined. Defensive end Stylez White (29 tackles) leads the team in sacks with five, while rookie tackle Gerald McCoy (27 tackles) and end Tim Crowder (24 tackles) both have three sacks.

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

Freeman (2,261 passing yards, 15 TD, 5 INT) faced a frugal pass defense in Baltimore last week, but has a favorable matchup with Atlanta's 27th-rated pass defense invading the scene on Sunday. He has thrown a touchdown pass in eight straight games and has seven over his past four contests. Freeman hasn't lit up opposing defenses since a 278-yard performance in a Week 8 win at Arizona, though, having thrown for an average of 182 yards in that stretch. The former first-round pick also hasn't been intercepted in his previous three games and has only two picks in his past seven contests. Both of the interceptions came in the loss to the Falcons back in early November. Freeman, who has won nine of his last 14 starts, also threw a pair of touchdown passes in that loss and may do so again with a more energized Blount (496 rushing yards, 4 TD) in the backfield. The powerful rookie had his breakout game against the Cardinals last month but fell back to earth the next week in Atlanta, rushing for just 46 yards on 13 carries. He has been somewhat consistent since then, though he owns just one touchdown run in the past four games. Blount won't be running behind right guard Davin Joseph for the remainder of the season after the lineman sustained a broken foot on the opening drive of last week's game. He is expected to be replaced by Jeremy Zuttah, who can play any position on the line. Bucs wideout Mike Williams (45 receptions, 701 yards, 6 TD) leads all NFL rookies in receiving yards and is tied for the lead in touchdown catches among first-year players.

The Atlanta defense was able to hang on and defeat the Packers last week in a matchup between premier offenses in the league. Rodgers was still able to pick apart Atlanta's 27th-rated pass defense for 344 yards, but only had one touchdown pass. He ended up being Green Bay's leading rusher with 51 yards and a score on 12 scrambles as well. Freeman is a pretty mobile guy like Rodgers, so the Falcons have to be concern about the former taking off this Sunday. The Falcons have the sixth-best run defense in the league and must stop Blount with tackles Corey Peters (22 tackles) and Jonathan Babineaux (17 tackles, 2 sacks, INT) up front. Ends Abraham (25 tackles, 9 sacks) and Kroy Biermann (28 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) can also be a factor stopping the run if Tampa Bay's backs bounce to the outside, but their forte is rushing the passer. Abraham has eight sacks in 10 games in this series. The Atlanta pass defense must be on its game and didn't have such a great showing against Packers wideout Greg Jennings, who sped past defenders for 119 yards on only five receptions. The Falcons own 21 takeaways, with 15 interceptions and six fumble recoveries in 2010. Linebacker and leading tackler Curtis Lofton (86 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) has forced a team-high three fumbles and recorded one interception. He is tied with safety William Moore (42 tackles, 4 INT) for turnovers created.

FANTASY FOCUS

Ryan's numbers may dip a bit this week on the road, but that still shouldn't keep fantasy owners from inserting him along with Turner, Roddy White and Gonzalez in this week's lineup. Former Buc and current Falcons kicker Matt Bryant booted a 47-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining to give Atlanta the lead for good last Sunday and is a perfect 9-for-9 from 20-to-29 yards away.

Freeman doesn't put up gaudy numbers in fantasy, but several owners jumped on him a few weeks ago during his run of fourth-quarter magic. He will get to dissect Atlanta's 27th-rated pass defense, while Blount will try to be a wrecking ball to Atlanta's tight run defense. Mike Williams, tight end Kellen Winslow and kicker Connor Barth round out the rest of Tampa Bay's better fantasy performers. Barth is 4-for-4 from 20-to-29 yards and had made all six tries from 30-to-39 yards as well.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The continuation of this heated rivalry is arguably one of the best the NFL has to offer in Week 13. It doesn't get any better when two division foes have a chance to deflate each other's postseason aspirations, with Atlanta gunning for the top seed in the conference and the Bucs looking to stay alive in the crowded playoff picture. The Falcons have the hot hand right now and will move closer to obtaining home-field advantage with a close win in Tampa. A loss won't necessarily knock the Bucs out of the race, but it will certainly damper their spirits for a division title.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 18, Buccaneers 12

12/02 19:25:29 ET