8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Falcons -6.5, Over/Under: 48.5
A pair of teams traveling very in different directions meet tonight in a matchup ripe with Playoff Implications for one of them, as the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers play host to the reigning NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. As disjointed as this season has been for the Falcons (8-5, 3rd in NFC South), who endured a disappointing 4-4 start to the campaign, their fate remains very much in their hands, for despite sitting in Third Place in the competitive NFC South and clinging to the conference’s final Wild Card, they have the opportunity to still win their division. Simply put, all Dan Quinn’s charges have to do is win out and the South will be thiers for a second consecutive term. It began with last week’s 20-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints to pull Atlanta within a game behind both the Saints and Carolina Panthers in the division, with each of their remaining three contests against their Southern Brethren, meaning if they can manage to run the table, then they’ll be going from the fringes of the Playoffs, to home field in the First Round. Winners of five out of their last seven outings, the Falcons enter tonight’s meeting with the Bucs well-rested, enjoying a sorely-needed 11-Day Respite to put things in place for this postseason run. When we last saw them back on December 7th, they erased a 17-10 Fourth Quarter Deficit against visiting New Orleans, overcoming Three Turnovers en route to scoring the final Ten Points of the affair, with Matt Bryant’s 52-Yard Field Goal with just under Four Minutes left to play serving as the game-winner. It was a tough night for Matt Ryan (65.9%, 252.2 Y/G, 7.27 NY/A, 17 TD, 11 INT), with the reigning MVP tossing Three Interceptions despite battling back with a late Touchdown to Mohamed Sanu (54 REC, 578 YDS, 5 TD), while the Rushing Attack trampled the visitors with the tandem of Devonta Freeman (152 CAR, 680 YDS, 6 TD) and Tevin Coleman (139 CAR, 593 YDS, 5 TD) accounting for 123 Yards and a Score on Thirty-Three Carries. However, the biggest takeaway from that performance was the Defense, who after enduring the Saints’ early onslaught, shut them down for the majority of the Second Half; after the visiting side took a 7-Point Lead early in the Third Quarter, Quinn’s Defense relegated them to three consecutive Drives ending in a Punt, with neither series of plays lasting longer than Sixteen Yards, before ending their bid to take the lead with a crucial Deion Jones (109 TKL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 8 PD) Interception in the End Zone on the game’s final Drive. Needless to say, this is the kind of game that they weren’t gutting out earlier in the season. So with the dreaded Super Bowl Hangover (nearly?) behind them, Ryan and Co. will look to keep things rolling against Tampa Bay, whom they handled with relative ease in a 34-20 drubbing three weeks ago. On that day, the Offense exploded for 516 Total Yards, as the hosts jumped out to 27-6 lead just five minutes into the Second Half. Ryan, who has killed the Buccaneers throughout the course of his career, completed 26-of-35 Passes for 317 Yards and a Touchdown, while the aforementioned Sanu got into the Passing Game in the most literal of fashions, with the former Rutgers Quarterback finding Julio Jones (73 ERC, 1,161 YDS, 3 TD) for a ridiculous 51-Yard Touchdown, adding to the All-Pro’s staggering total of 253 Yards and a pair of Scores on a Dozen Receptions. Over the course of his 7-Year Career, Jones has absolutely shredded Tampa Bay’s Defense, reeling in Eighty Receptions for 1,359 Yards (123.5 Y/G) on 17.0 Yards per Catch, with Ten Touchdowns, with each of those figures representing his most against any one opponent. Furthermore, Ryan has faced them on nineteen occasions, earning a 12-7 record, while completing 66.2% of his Attempts for an average of 250.6 Yards, with Twenty-Nine Touchdowns in comparison to Fourteen Interceptions. After a career-year in which he set personal bests in a litany of categories, while leading the NFL in Touchdown Percentage (7.1%), Yards per Attempt (9.3), Yards per Completion (13.3), Net Yards per Attempt (8.25), Passer Rating (117.1), and QBR (83.3), 2017 has served as little more than a cold dose of reality for the 10th-Year Veteran Quarterback, who, along with the majority of the Offense, has rarely looked in synch with former Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan now calling the shots in San Francisco. While it would be a bit exaggerated to place the blame for all of their inconsistencies on playcalling alone (for injuries have played a sizeable role as well), there is no denying that something has been missing this season. Last year, Atlanta feasted upon chunk plays of Twenty Yards or more, compiling a whopping Eighty-Four Passing or Running Plays of such yardage (1st Overall), but through thirteen outings this season have managed just Fifty-Three.
Meanwhile, needless to say, this is not how the 2017 campaign was supposed to play out for the Buccaneers (4-9, 4th in NFC South), who after last year’s 9-7 finish were touted by many as one of the young teams ready to truly break out this season. It’s been a proverbial failure to launch for this team, who have been rocked by injuries, sloppy play, and suspensions, along with a great deal of immaturity from their young Franchise Quarterback Jamies Winston (62.6%, 247.5 Y/G, 6.64 NY/A, 14 TD, 8 INT). Expectations are tricky thing for young teams, with many of them unable to perform at a consistent level with everyone looking to hold them to a lofty standard that they’re unfamiliar with. The Offense, which has loads of talent and potential on paper, has been an abject disappointment, mostly because of Turnovers, or more specifically Twenty of them (24th Overall), negating a unit that has managed to move the football up and down the field with ease, averaging a solid 366.7 Total Yards per Game (11th Overall). Most of the blame has been left at the feet of Winston, and rightfully so, for the former No One Overall Pick has not taken the requisite steps in his development in this, his third year as the starter in Tampa Bay. The 23-Year Old hasn’t won a game since October 1st, dropping seven consecutive starts while being shut down for a three-week period to rehab a nagging shoulder injury. Many in the NFL openly questioned if it wasn’t a subtle benching for Winston, whose questionable actions in a 30-10 defeat to New Orleans have helped permeate a reported rift with Head Coach Dirk Koetter. Either way, the sabbatical, if you will, hasn’t provided the desired results; in the two games since his return, Winston has completed 67.1% of his Attempts for an average of 277.5 Yards on 7.93 Yards per Attempt, with Four Touchdowns in comparison to a pair of Interceptions, while taking Ten Sacks. While those numbers are from miserable, the outcomes haven’t changed; a 26-20 Overtime Loss to the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Packers was hugely disappointing, while last weekend’s 24-21 defeat at home to the Detroit Lions further compounded their problems. In both cases, Tampa Bay had to rally to overcome a sizable Second Half Deficit, and in both cases they came up well short. The latter of the two was particularly troublesome, as the hosts coughed up the football a whopping five times, with Winston throwing Two Interceptions and losing a Fumble. This has quickly become the defining statistic of his career, for in Forty-Two career games, he’s committed a ridiculous Fifty-Three Turnovers, with the Bucs going an unsurprising 1-10 in contest in which the former Heisman has thrown at last Two Interceptions. And it’s been this aspect of his game that is holding the Offense back, for Management went out of their way in the Offseason to make sure he had no shortage of weapons at his disposal; Koetter’s Offense features the likes of blossoming Receiver Mike Evans (55 REC, 760 YDS, 4 TD), veteran deep threat Desean Jackson (49 REC, 657 YDS, 3 TD), highly-rated First Round Tight End OJ Howard (25 ERC, 42 YDS, 5 TD), along with the healthy return of former Pro Bowl Tailback Doug Martin (129 CAR, 402 YDS, 3 TD), yet sill cannot find a way to put all the pieces together. Perhaps a date with the Falcons will help course correct his young Quarterback, for Winston has enjoyed a good deal of success against his division rivals thus far, going 3-1 in four career meetings, completing 64.0% of his Passes for an average of 236.5 Yards on 7.57 Yards per Attempt, with Nine Touchdowns and just Two Interceptions. With all that said, as disappointing as the Offense has been, the Defense has more than earned it’s fair share of criticism, for this unit has been absolutely shredded throughout the season, relinquishing the second-most Total Yards in the league, allowing 389.3 per Game (31st Overall), while ranking dead-last in Opponents’ Third Down Percentage, yielding a disastrous conversion rate of 48.3%. The Pass Defense in particular, has been abysmal, with the Bucs permitting an NFL-worst 276.1 Yards through the air (32nd Overall) on a staggering 7.5 Net Yards per Attempt (31st Overall), which can be directly attributed to their absent Pass-Rush, which has accounted for a scant Seventeen Sacks, which you guessed it, is the fewest in the league at this point. And to make matters worse, All-Pro Defensive Tackle Gerald McCoy (40 TKL, 5.0 SK, 1 PD), who leads the team with Five Sacks, is out for the foreseeable future with a injury to his Right Biceps.