We were so naïve.
Of course, we had no idea how the next month and a half would unfold. A heartbreak here, a blowout there, and suddenly Atlanta is just one game in front of Tampa heading into this week's rematch. If the Falcons lose on Sunday, these two rivals will sit at the bottom of the NFC with identical 2-7 records. Woof.
Indeed, a lot has changed since that glorious shellacking at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta has fallen apart before our very eyes, losing five straight and destroying any hope for a playoff berth. Arthur Blank is all but guaranteed to fire the coaching staff by January, and GM Thomas Dimitroff may not be far behind. Everything is sad and terrible.
Still, Atlanta should win this one...right? I firmly believe the Falcons are the better team, and they're fresh off a bye. The Bucs, meanwhile, are coming off a brutal loss to Cleveland.
All things considered, this may be the Falcons' best chance to earn a W the rest of the season. Here are four key matchups to watch as Atlanta works towards a much-needed victory.
Atlanta's Offensive Line vs. Tampa's Front Seven
The Bucs' pass rush isn't very good. Sure, they have Gerald McCoy, but they're tied for 25th in the NFL in sacks (13.0) and lack depth you'd expect from an intimidating unit.
Normally, stopping Tampa's defensive front wouldn't be a huge concern; however, guys like James Stone, Ryan Schraeder and Gabe Carimi don't normally play substantial minutes in the NFL.
Keeping Matt Ryan upright will be crucial, win or lose. Until the offensive line takes major steps forward—don't hold your breath—it will be under the microscope. Sunday will be no exception.
Jonathan Massaquoi vs. Mike Nolan
It's no secret that Jonathan Massaquoi is a talented pass rusher. Right now, it's a matter of giving him the opportunities to succeed. There lies the issue.
We've discussed this ad nauseum, but Massaquoi's low snap count remains extremely frustrating. Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan recently called this a mistake, but has the coaching staff given us reason to believe proper changes will be made? Not really.
For perspective: Massaquoi has posted a 5.7 pass rush rating in 2014, according to PFF. That's more than four times higher than any other Falcon.
Give him the snaps he deserves, and good things will happen.
Julio Jones vs. Tampa's Secondary
Julio has struggled a bit in recent weeks, racking up no more than 68 receiving yards in his last three contests. Jones' lack of productively can be partially attributed to his hurt ankle, but that appears to be a nonissue at this point: he claimed he's 100 percent healthy on Thursday and will get the start in Tampa.
Luckily, the Bucs' defensive backfield is one of the worst in the NFL, as the Falcons and Jones learned earlier in the season. Julio caught a season-high 161 receiving yards in their last meeting and could put up similar numbers this time around.
If he exploits the Bucs' mediocre secondary, the Falcons should be able to move the ball. If he can't, it may be a long day for Dirk Koetter's offense.
Mike Smith vs. Himself
It's become clear that Mike Smith's tenure in Atlanta is drawing to a close. The veteran head coach has led the Falcons to many high points over the years, but his recent errors have cost the team dearly.
The brutal loss in England was the result of Smith's latest gaffes, and such mistakes will have to be avoided on Sunday.