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NFL Preview - Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Five interceptions and a 40.5 quarterback rating usually isn't a recipe for success. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan proved otherwise.
In the NFL, all that matters is the end result and the Falcons got what they wanted despite a sloppy performance on both sides of the football. The Falcons will try not to make it so hard on themselves when they face the NFC South- rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first time this season Sunday afternoon.
Atlanta maintained its best record in the NFC at 9-1 by squeezing out a 23-19 win over the Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome, where Ryan was intercepted a career-high five times and completed 28-of-46 passes for 301 yards. Ryan did not throw a touchdown pass for the second time in three weeks and his 40.5 QB rating was the lowest since he registered a 29.6 back in Week 2 of the 2008 campaign -- his rookie season.
Ryan saved his best performance for last in the fourth quarter versus the Cardinals and led the Falcons on a go-ahead drive with less than seven minutes remaining in the game. His confidence and poise never wavered in leading Atlanta into scoring position, as Michael Turner pounded his way into the end zone from a yard out for the decisive score. It ended a seven-play, 70-yard drive, while Ryan completed 4-of-5 pass attempts for 64 yards.
"I've said it before: he never changes, if he throws five touchdowns or five picks," Falcons center Todd McClure said. "He never changes. He stands in there. He takes some hits. He had blood coming out of his mouth at one point today and he was back up and ready to go again. Unbelievable guy, and a great guy to play with."
Ryan said postgame that part of the game is understanding there will be some hard times and adversity staring you in the face. Getting up and continuing to throw the football and forgetting about the last play are key in progressing. Ryan, whose teams are 29-1 when he reaches a passer rating of 100 or better, has displayed an ability to stay calm in tight situations. He has led the Falcons to 20 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most in the NFL since his rookie season. He has accomplished the feat four times already this season.
"I think that there are a lot of hats you wear as quarterback. Part of it is player, and part of it is keeping everybody on the same page and being relaxed," said Ryan, who had never thrown more than three INTs in a game. "Our message was that even after turning the ball over three times in the first half, we were still right there; we were one score away."
The Falcons, who overcame six turnovers to win, bounced back from their first loss of the season a week before on the road at New Orleans and will play three of the next five games on the road. They had a franchise-best 4-0 road record to start the season come to an end against the Saints.
Atlanta's schedule for the remainder of the season features two games with Tampa Bay, and matchups with the Saints, Panthers, Giants and Lions. That shouldn't prevent the Falcons from reaching the playoffs for a third straight season and for the fourth time in five years.
Tampa Bay needed some late-game magic of its own to remain in the win column last weekend, as it posted a 27-21 overtime victory at Carolina.
The Bucs trailed by 11 points with roughly six minutes to play, about the same amount of time Atlanta needed to pull away, and tied the game on Josh Freeman's 24-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion to Vincent Jackson with 12 seconds to go. With a little help from standout rookie running back Doug Martin, Freeman orchestrated a game-winning 80-yard drive in OT, culminating with Dallas Clark's 15-yard TD catch for the final margin.
"Would we love to win games by 14, 21 points? Of course you would," Jackson said afterward. "But it's not something you hope for. You prepare for the worst and you'll be ready for anything."
The Buccaneers have won four in a row and five of six games, and seem ready to make a run at the playoffs in crowded NFC. But Clark wasn't ready to lead the Bucs' bandwagon just yet.
"I hope we go back and look at the film and say, 'Hey we didn't play well,'" Clark said. "Sure, we played well enough to make some plays to win at the end, but to get where we want to go, that's not good enough football."
Freeman has blossomed, as evidenced by his 16 touchdown passes in the last six games. He has only three interceptions in that time and was picked off twice against the NFC South-rival Panthers. Freeman posted a 73.5 quarterback rating, ending a string of five games with at least a 100 score.
The Buccaneers split last season's series with the Falcons, but have lost six of the previous seven meetings in the series. In six career games against Atlanta, Freeman has 10 interceptions -- the most against any team -- eight touchdown passes and 1,248 passing yards. Ryan has faced the Bucs eight times in his career, totaling 1,478 passing yards, nine picks and eight TDs. The nine interceptions are the most against any opponent.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Buccaneers running back Martin is making a case for Rookie of the Year and has compiled 100-plus yards from scrimmage in six straight games. He enjoyed his third 100-yard rushing game (138 yards) in the last four weeks against the Panthers and played an instrumental role in the overtime drive.
Martin is the sole reason why Tampa Bay is ninth in rushing yards this season with 128.9, and also is a piece in the passing game. Martin, who has exactly 1,000 rushing yards on the season (3rd in NFL) and leads the league in yards from scrimmage owns 27 receptions for 319 yards and a score. Atlanta has good linebackers and a solid front line to slow down Martin, but it was gashed for 137 yards on the ground against Arizona. Not having linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (ankle) on Sunday due to an ankle problem could be an issue. Weatherspoon, who missed the past three games and said he feels a lot better this week, is questionable Sunday.
"I think Spoon is a run and hit linebacker. He sits in there in our sub defense at the middle linebacker position and plays outside linebacker in our base package and Sean is one of our best football players," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "Not only on the defensive side, but on our football team. We've missed him and we are looking forward to getting him back. Hopefully it's sooner than later."
The Falcons obviously can counter Tampa Bay's ground game with their third- rated passing attack (292.9 ypg). That's, of course, if Ryan keeps the ball out of the Bucs' hands. However, Martin will be key to the Buccaneers' offense and faces an Atlanta team 26th in rushing yards allowed (130.5 ypg) and 18th in yards against (346.8 ypg).
Atlanta has arguably the best receivers and tight end in the game. Roddy White, Julio Jones and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez can give nightmares to opposing defensive coordinators. Jones sustained an ankle injury against the Cardinals and is questionable for Sunday. Jones had just 33 yards on three catches, and hasn't scored since Week 8.
"I think the injury situation is going to be better than it was last week. We had some guys that were banged up. We have some guys that we are anticipating that did not play in the ballgame last week that were scratched because of injuries will be back participating with us this week," Smith said. "It'll be good to get some of those guys back."
White leads the Falcons with 946 yards on 62 catches. Gonzalez is first with 64 receptions and six TDs to go along with 650 receiving yards. Those two alone can be a deadly combination for a Bucs defense that is last against the pass, allowing 312.6 yards per game, but is third with 15 INTs. On the other hand, Tampa Bay could force Atlanta to be one dimensional with its top-rated run defense. And that's not good for Turner, who is averaging 53 rushing yards over the past six weeks.
This week will be a good test for Bucs rookie safety Mark Barron. He'll have veteran safety Ronde Barber to seek advice from before and during the game. Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett leads the team with seven sacks and will have to apply pressure up front to disrupt Ryan, who has been sacked in every game and once in each of the past two.
Every game is a must-win situation for the Buccaneers. The pressure is on and facing the rival Falcons will be a good test for Greg Schiano's team that is one of at least five fighting for a Wild Card spot. Winning the NFC South seems out of the question because Atlanta is three games ahead. But in order to keep pace with the likes of Dallas, Chicago, Minnesota, New Orleans and Seattle, the Bucs have to finish games in regulation and Freeman must continue his latest surge. Martin will continue to deliver for Tampa Bay, which should squeak past the Falcons at home for a fifth straight win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 26, Falcons 21
11/22 08:54:38 ET
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