The Falcons will welcome the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Georgia Dome on Sunday for the final game of the regular season, and head coach Mike Smith has stated that the Falcons plan to play to win the game. (Hello!) Given Tampa Bay's recent decline, losing five games in a row after a relatively strong start to the regular season, it's reasonable to expect that the Falcons could wrap up the 2012 season at a league-best 14-2.
On the surface, with that five game losing streak, the Bucs appear to be imploding, but they are still statistically a good team. Running back Doug Martin has had an exceptional rookie season, and has the potential to exploit Atlanta's run defense, which has been a point of weakness all season. And, we all know--particularly after Atlanta's recent loss to the Carolina Panthers--division games are always a little different.
Not surprisingly, the keys to this game are the same as the keys to every other game. The Falcons need to protect Matt Ryan (or Luke McCown, because one would assume that Ryan won't spend a lot of time under center, realistically), establish some kind of a ground game, and limit mistakes. Cornerback Eric Wright, who has missed the last five games, first with an Achilles injury, and subsequently with a four game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, is eligible to be back on the field on Sunday. It's worth noting that the Buccaneers have the worst passing defense in the league, and that the entire five-game losing streak occurred while Wright was injured or suspended.
On defense, William Moore is not quite ready to play against the Bucs, which is okay. A healthy Willy Mo will be fundamentally important in the playoffs. Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are both solid receivers, so maintaining coverage and giving the pass rush time to disrupt Josh Freeman will be helpful. Atlanta's run defense is easily the most glaring weakness for an otherwise exceptional unit, but they did contain Doug Martin very well when the teams met previously in Tampa Bay, allowing two rushing touchdowns from Martin, but holding him to just 50 yards on 21 attempts.
Looking at the weeks that have elapsed since the last time these teams met, Atlanta's statistics reveal a team that appears to be firing on all cylinders. Including the game in Tampa Bay, Matt Ryan has completed 126 of 174 attempts (72%) for 1409 yards. Ryan has thrown 11 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. The Falcons have managed 439 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns in five games--certainly not mind-blowing, but definitely adequate. Atlanta's defense has allowed just two passing touchdowns over the past five weeks--and allowed Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford zero passing touchdowns total. "Peaking at the right time" is widely accepted as necessary for playoff success. These recent statistics are encouraging in that regard.
Surely the Bucs are bitter about their recent struggles, after such a strong start to the regular season. They're going to be angry, and let's be honest--any division opponent would not mind handing Atlanta a loss, ruining their perfect record this season in the Georgia Dome, and getting in their heads before playoffs begin. The Falcons need to balance their desire to win and finish the regular season strong, maintaining momentum heading into their first round bye week, with the absolute necessity of keeping key players healthy for a deep playoff run.
This is far from a "must-win" game, but a win sure would be nice. I expect the Falcons to win this one, even while resting starters as much as possible. What are you expecting from Sunday's game?