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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (7-3) at Baltimore (7-3)



By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - Though they've been one of the turnaround stories of this 2010 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still finding respect hard to come by. The surprising contenders have a prime opportunity to enhance their reputation, not to mention their standing in the NFC playoff race, when they head to Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday for an intriguing interconference encounter with the AFC North co-leading Ravens.

After a massive rebuilding effort in young head coach Raheem Morris' debut produced a dreadful 3-13 record in 2009, the Buccaneers have quickly returned to respectability this year with a roster full of players whose potential and desire have offset the team's overall lack of experience. Tampa Bay has already more than doubled last season's victory total by winning seven of their first 10 contests in Morris' second go-around, which has placed the up- and-coming club squarely in the mix of the conference postseason picture.

The Bucs enter this week's play just one game behind front-running Atlanta in the competitive NFC South and are dead even with the more-established New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers in the battle for the NFC's two Wild Card spots.

Despite its unforeseen success, Tampa Bay has yet to convince some remaining naysayers that they're a team to be taken seriously. That's mainly because its seven wins have come at the expense of opponents that are a combined 17-53 on the year. In their three matchups against foes that presently sport positive records, the Buccaneers have been outscored by an average of 18.7 points and lost each of those outings.

Baltimore figures to provide a stiff challenge for the youthful Bucs on Sunday. Not only have the Ravens compiled an identical 7-3 mark that has put them near the top of the AFC pack, they'll be entering Sunday's showdown riding a seven-game home winning streak and have amassed an excellent 16-4 record at M&T Bank Stadium since the combination of head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco joined forces prior to the 2008 season.

The Ravens return to their cozy confines after posting a 37-13 decision over lowly Carolina last Sunday in Charlotte, with Flacco throwing for 301 yards and a touchdown on a crisp 24-of-33 passing and the defense delivering a knockout blow with a pair of scores on interception returns in the final five minutes.

Tampa Bay is coming off a rather impressive display on the defensive side as well a week ago, limiting the sluggish San Francisco 49ers to a mere 189 total yards and registering six sacks in a 21-0 road triumph for the Bucs' first shutout since 2004.

The win was the fourth in five games for Tampa Bay and moved Morris' squad to 4-1 away from home this season, with the lone blemish a 27-21 setback to the NFC-leading Falcons on Nov. 7.

SERIES HISTORY

The Buccaneers are 2-1 against the Ravens all-time, but were 27-0 home losers when the teams met in the 2006 regular season opener. Tampa Bay took the other two series meetings, a 22-10 home victory in 2001 and a 25-0 win in Baltimore in 2002.

Both Morris and Harbaugh will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

While the Tampa Bay offense can hardly be termed as explosive, it's been an effective and efficient unit that's gotten heady quarterback play out of second-year pro Josh Freeman (2099 passing yards, 14 TD, 5 INT) and has run the ball with a punishing authority in recent weeks. After piling up a season- best 186 rushing yards in a mid-November win over Carolina, the Bucs churned out 162 yards on the ground on the 49ers last Sunday. Physical rookie LeGarette Blount (441 rushing yards, 4 TD) has taken over as the table-setter during the past month, which has enabled early-season starter Carnell Williams (338 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 3 total TD) to thrive in a more situational role. The oft-injured former Rookie of the Year has only carried the ball 12 times over the last two games, but has generated an eye-popping 113 yards and two touchdowns on those attempts. The remarkably poised Freeman has also played at a high level as of late, having completed over 70 percent of his passes with four scores and zero interceptions during Tampa's two-game streak. His go-to guy has been rookie receiver Mike Williams (43 receptions, 681 yards, 6 TD), who continues to come through with consistent numbers despite being the focus of opposing defenses, and that extra attention has often benefited tight end and secondary target Kellen Winslow (43 receptions, 1 TD). The Buccaneers have done a good job of taking care of the football, having committed only 14 turnovers in their 10 contests.

Tampa Bay will attempt to establish the run against a highly-reputed Baltimore defense that's been a bit hit-or-miss in that area over the course of the year. The Ravens were able to shut down Atlanta standout Michael Turner back in Week 10, holding him to a harmless 39 yards on 17 totes, but unproven Panthers backup Mike Goodson managed 120 yards on the group last Sunday. The team does boast a pair of premier stoppers in iconic inside linebacker Ray Lewis (83 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TD), who had one of the two defensive scores in the Carolina win, and sturdy end Haloti Ngata (48 tackles, 5 sacks), as well as an elite pass rusher in outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (45 tackles, 7.5 sacks), a three-time Pro Bowl with four sacks over his last three games. The secondary boasts a bona fide difference-maker as well in perennial All-Pro free safety Ed Reed (15 tackles, 4 PD), who's garnered four of Baltimore's season total of 10 interceptions despite having played in only four games due to injury. Opponents have been able to throw on the Ravens at times, however, as they've allowed an average of 270.7 passing yards in their past six tilts.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

The Ravens become a very difficult team to defend because of the multitude of quality skill players they possess. Dynamic running back Ray Rice (730 rushing yards, 3 TD, 40 receptions) is capable of inflicting serious damage as a receiver as well as a rusher, the wide receiver combo of offseason pickup Anquan Boldin (48 receptions, 625 yards, 6 TD) and veteran Derrick Mason (37 receptions, 3 TD) are both sure-handed and experienced, and tight end Todd Heap (35 receptions, 4 TD) is turning in a strong season as an additional pass-catching threat. The key to it all, however, has been Flacco (2433 passing yards, 16 TD, 7 INT), who's been on the best roll of his three-year career as the driving force of the offense. The strong-armed signal-caller has thrown for 11 touchdowns over his past five games and been intercepted just once in his last six tests, in spite of having gotten spotty protection from a front line that will be without starting right guard Chris Chester for a second straight week due to a skin condition. Flacco's been particularly good at home, where he's yet to toss a pick in four assignments this year and recorded a stellar 113.7 quarterback rating. Seven different receivers had at least two receptions in last week's win, with Rice hauling in six passes for 66 yards and No. 3 wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh (15 receptions, 2 TD) gaining 79 yards and scoring a touchdown on his only two grabs.

The Tampa Bay defense will be entering M&T Bank Stadium with a surge of confidence off last week's dominant showing against the 49ers, in which the team neutralized running back Frank Gore to a paltry 23 rushing yards on 12 attempts while end Stylez White (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and rookie tackle Gerald McCoy (24 tackles, 1 sack) continually harassed quarterback Troy Smith all throughout the day. An outfit that ranks sixth in the league against the pass (200.8 ypg) and has come up with 15 interceptions won't be a pushover for Flacco and the Baltimore receivers, as third-year playmaker Aqib Talib (33 tackles, 5 INT, 8 PD) is a lock-down defender at one cornerback spot and 35- year-old Ronde Barber (54 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) has earned five Pro Bowl citations on the opposite side. The Bucs emphasize speed over strength and can be overpowered by strong running games, as evidenced by their No. 29 overall rating in rushing defense (136.5 ypg), but they did yield a season-low 71 yards on the ground in their Week 11 rout of San Francisco.

FANTASY FOCUS

Rice owners may be disappointed with the three touchdowns the probable first- round fantasy draft pick has had this season, but his receiving abilities as well as a seemingly favorable matchup with a questionable Tampa run defense screams for a start. Flacco's a tougher call, as the Buccaneers have been terrific against the pass and the Ravens may employ a more run-oriented game plan on Sunday, but it's also hard to ignore his excellent numbers at home. Boldin and Heap are both solid but unspectacular choices at the wide receiver and tight end spots, with Mason a usable option only in deeper leagues. Tampa Bay's best bets for production are Blount and Mike Williams, with Carnell Williams offering some potential at the flex position, but Freeman doesn't usually put up the gaudy passing totals that warrant starting status. Though both these defenses had big games last week, there are better ones in which to select from.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

While the question still lingers as to whether or not the Buccaneers can hang with the big boys, don't expect them to be intimidated by the hostile environment and high-stakes scenario that awaits on Sunday. Still, Baltimore's prowess in its own building is well-documented, and the Ravens do own an overall advantage in both talent and experience on their upstart opponent. Tampa Bay should be able to connect for a few big plays and prevent the Ravens from lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine, but until it can prove it's ready to handle a jump in class such as this, go with the more established team.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Buccaneers 19

11/24 13:35:43 ET