NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (5-2) at Atlanta (5-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman's ability to lead fourth-quarter comebacks is starting to get noticed around the league.
After rallying his team to yet another victory last weekend, Freeman and the Buccaneers will try to grab sole possession of first place in the NFC South from the Atlanta Falcons as the two clubs battle it out this weekend at the Georgia Dome.
A first-round pick by the Buccaneers in the 2009 draft, Freeman owns eight victories over his 17-game career, and six of those have been fourth-quarter comebacks. His latest came last weekend in Arizona, where Tampa Bay blew a 17- point lead before Freeman helped guide his club to a 38-35 victory over the Cardinals and into a tie with idle Atlanta for first in the division.
"Like he almost did that on purpose [Sunday], he's throwing the game so he can get another fourth quarter comeback," joked Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. "No. You know he's resilient, man. He's wise beyond his years."
Freeman didn't do it alone. Running back LeGarrett Blount actually scored the go-ahead touchdown from one yard out with 5:13 left in the game, but that run was set up by Freeman's 53-yard pass to rookie wideout Arrelious Benn. The Cardinals then drove to the Buccaneers' three-yard line, but cornerback Aqib Talib sealed the win with an interception -- his second of the game -- with 2:15 to play.
Tampa Bay picked up its second straight win and third in its last four games while also improving to 3-0 on the road this season. The Bucs have won five straight contests as the guest dating back to last year.
They'll have a tough time extending that streak on Sunday, given that the Falcons are 16-3 at home since Mike Smith took over head coaching duties prior to the 2008 season. That includes victories in all three games this year at the Georgia Dome, where Atlanta was last a 39-32 winner over Cincinnati on Oct. 24 -- coming back after blowing a 24-3 halftime lead of its own -- before having the bye this past weekend.
Atlanta's break gave Smith and his Falcons an extended look at Freeman's heroics.
"I read something about [Freeman's] had six come-from-behind victories in the short time he's been the starting quarterback," said Smith on Monday. "They obviously are playing with a lot of confidence. He's a big, athletic quarterback that has two young receivers that I think are coming into their own, and their running game is something that you have to be concerned with as well."
Atlanta's offense will present plenty of challenges in its own rights. Wide receiver Roddy White caught 11 passes for 201 yards with a pair of touchdowns versus Cincinnati and was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Month after finishing October with 29 receptions, 489 yards and three touchdowns in four games.
The Falcons have won four straight at home dating back to last year and have taken five of six overall since a Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh.
Tampa Bay holds a 18-15 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta, but was swept by the Falcons in last year's home-and-home. The Bucs were 20-17 road losers when the teams met in Week 12, and dropped a 20-10 home decision in Week 17. The clubs embarked on a conventional split of the 2008 home-and-home, including a 13-10 Atlanta win at the Georgia Dome. The Bucs are 0-2 in Atlanta since last winning there in 2007.
Smith is 3-1 against the Bucs as a head coach, while Morris is 0-2 against both Smith and the Falcons as a head man.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Though he has been making it interesting, Freeman (1533 passing yards, 8 TD, 3 INT) keeps finding ways to win. He posted career bests with a 72.0 completion percentage and a quarterback rating of 121.8 versus Arizona, while throwing for 278 yards. He also went a third straight game without an interception. Freeman completed a pass to 10 different players last weekend, but his top target was rookie wide receiver Mike Williams (32 receptions). The fourth- round pick had four receptions for 105 yards with a score and leads all NFL rookies with 470 receiving yards and four scoring catches. Benn's 53-yard reception was his lone of the game, but it was a big one. Tampa Bay finished well above its average for points scored per game (19.4) and total offense (321.7 ypg). Tampa Bay mustered 154 yards rushing a week ago, led by a career- best 120 yards on 22 carries by Blount (222 rushing yards, 3 TD). Starter Carnell Williams (212 rushing yards, 1 total TD) ended with just four carries for 10 yards. Tight end Kellen Winslow is second on the Bucs with 30 catches and 306 yards.
Freeman should get plenty of opportunities to make some plays this weekend, seeing as the Falcons rank sixth in the NFL versus the run at 95.9 yards allowed per game. They limited the Bengals to 84 rushing yards two weekends ago, but the secondary was tagged for 385 yards through the air. Atlanta's defense should get a boost this Sunday with the return of cornerback Dunta Robinson (24 tackles), who missed the Cincinnati game after suffering a concussion on a hit versus Philadelphia the weekend prior. Robinson was cleared to play and practice on Wednesday. Safety Thomas DeCoud (29 tackles, 1 INT) also practiced despite suffering a head injury he sustained versus the Bengals. However, outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (29 tackles, 1 sack) is questionable with a knee injury. Cornerback Christopher Owens (32 tackles, 1 INT) was the club's leading tackler versus Cincinnati with 11, while safety Erik Coleman (18 tackles) and corner Brian Williams (13 tackles, 1 sack) had eight each. Williams also had a sack and a fumble recovery, while defensive end John Abraham (15 tackles, 6 sacks) logged two quarterback takedowns to give him four sacks in his last three games. Linebacker Curtis Lofton (58 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) recovered a fumble in the win and is the club's leading tackler.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
The Falcons bring a balanced attack to the ball, as they own the league's fifth-best rushing attack (137.4 ypg) and are 11th in passing (233.4 ypg). Quarterback Matt Ryan (1714 passing yards, 12 TD, 5 INT) fell one yard short of his first 300-yard passing game of the season and matched a career-best with three touchdown passes. In addition to a pair of scoring passes to White (54 receptions, 5 TD), Ryan also found Brian Finnegan (9 receptions, 2 TD) in the end zone. White caught 11 of Ryan's 24 completions, while the quarterback also hit wide receiver Michael Jenkins (8 receptions), who was playing in just his second game this season, three times for 25 yards. Tight end Tony Gonzalez (29 receptions, 3 TD) added a pair of receptions for Atlanta. Running back Michael Turner (587 rushing yards) turned in one of his best games of the season, rumbling for 121 yards on 23 carries. He also found the end zone twice after notching just one touchdown in his first six games.
Part of the reason that Freeman owns six comeback wins is because the Tampa Bay defense is allowing 23.3 points per game, tied for 24th in the league. The unit also fails to put pressure on the quarterback and has just six sacks on the season. One of those game versus the Cardinals and was recorded by end Stylez G. White (22 tackles, 3 sacks), one of his four tackles on the day. Tampa Bay did notch four interceptions a weekend ago, taking two back for touchdowns. Talib (21 tackles, 5 INT) returned one 45 yards for a score in the second quarter, while linebacker Geno Hayes (37 tackles, 1 INT) had a 41-yard return to the end zone in the opening frame. That effort helped boost Tampa Bay's turnover margin to plus-eight, one of the best in the league. Rookie safety Cody Grimm (37 tackles, 2 INT) led the way with eight tackles last week, while linebacker Barrett Ruud (53 tackles, 1 INT) finished with six and grabbed a pick as well.
While Freeman has been racking up impressive wins, his stats haven't exactly won over fantasy owners. He is a safe plug-in while the bye weeks are going on, though, as he hasn't turned the ball over much this season and has the speed to avoid sacks. Though Carnell Williams is still listed as the starter, Blount should be in line for the bulk of the Tampa Bay carries, though he does face a tough defense. Mike Williams and Winslow are the two top targets for Freeman. Tampa Bay's defense gives up too many yards and points to warrant a start, while kicker Connor Barth is 11-for-14 on field goals this year, with nearly half of those coming between 30-39 yards.
Turner is in line for another big game given the Bucs' troubles in stopping the run. Ryan and Roddy White are also great starts this week, and Gonzalez is also a consistent producer at the tight end spot. Expect Turner, White and Gonzalez to all find the end zone this weekend. Atlanta's defense gives up yards but not points, but is still a risk against a confident Buccaneers offense. Kicker Matt Bryant is 14-for-17 on field goals this year, but his long for the season is just 49 yards.
Given that the NFC South contains the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, it has to be considered a surprise that the Falcons and Bucs are battling for first place this late in the season. Despite identical 5-2 records, this game tilts towards Atlanta, which is home and coming off a bye week that got several players healthy. Freeman will find a way to keep it close, but Tampa Bay will eventually fall to the might of the Georgia Dome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Buccaneers 21
11/04 13:21:29 ET