The Buccaneers aren’t necessarily a great team, but they are a very good one. The Falcons, meanwhile, are very obviously not.
Week 15 Comparison
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Tampa Bay’s strengths have been a crisp red zone offense, an above average passing game, and a good defense with some stinkers owing to a sometimes shaky pass defense. They have one of the best run defenses in the league, they get plenty of turnovers, and their offense is good enough on its best days to win games. They’re probably going to run into a buzzsaw in the playoffs, whether that’s the Rams, the Seahawks, the Saints, or the Packers, but they’re still going to get there.
One of the team’s biggest liabilities, weirdly, is probably Tom Brady, who has superficially impressive numbers this season but has definitely not looked like vintage Brady in this offense. The other big liability is a ground game that is downright Koetteresque in its ineffectiveness and inconsistent application, and the third is a secondary and pass rush that can be inconsistent.
But while those issues may be fatal in the playoffs, they’ve hardly kept the Bucs from having a good season to this point, and it’ll hardly stop them from playing well against the Falcons. The Bucs are aggressive through the air and will attack this secondary, and their top run defense will likely mean the Falcons are wasting every touch they give Todd Gurley and (to a lesser extent, but still) Ito Smith. Given that their passing game remains a shadow of itself, they’re not well-positioned to take advantage of Tampa Bay’s weaknesses, and Matt Ryan’s recent spate of ugly turnovers may continue with a ballhawking Tampa Bay team.
This simply isn’t a good matchup. In years past, you could look forward to the Falcons at least taking one game per year from the Bucs, a team that has been hapless forever. The times have changed, though, and the Falcons will need to play the kind of crisp, well-rounded game they haven’t managed since their victory over the Vikings. Even in their total beatdown of the hapless Raiders, the offense barely carried its weight, and that simply won’t fly here.
Also, yes, the Falcons are now a league average offense on the year. That’s incredibly depressing.
How the Buccaneers have changed since the last time
The biggest changes are ones that you couldn’t have possibly missed. The Buccaneers went from Jameis Winston to Tom Brady and added Rob Gronkowski, a Patriots South move they hoped would push them to a Super Bowl. There’s still time for that to happen and the Bucs have been a better team this year, but Brady hasn’t quite been the force of nature this team hoped he’d be when they signed him.
The Bucs bled a lot of longtime players, but most of those were not essential. They drafted hulking, nimble tackle Tristan Wirfs to help protect Brady and whoever comes after Brady, and they snagged the extremely gifted safety Antoine Winfield Jr., a potential decade-long difference maker in a secondary that is rarely settled. The team also took pains to keep Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul to keep their 2019 pass rush more or less intact, and the net effect of those handful of big splashes is a pretty good football team.
Aside from Brady, Grwonkowski, Wirfs and Winfield, though, this is a team that will be familiar from last year. The outcome of this one is more a question of how diminished the Falcons are and how good Brady will be Sunday.
What you need to know
I think we’ve kind of covered it above, but this is not a good matchup for this Falcons team at this time.
The great Falcons offenses of yesteryear would be able to get into a shootout they could win with Tampa Bay, with this current version of Atlanta’s defense likely able to do enough to nettle Tom Brady to keep this close until the very end. The current version of this Falcons team can barely run the ball, is hyper-reliant on 1-2 receiving options, and has regularly been cashing in some of the worst results of Matt Ryan’s career. Defensively, they are greatly improved and have been clamping down hard on opposing offenses, but the Saints and Chargers have still had enough luck keeping things moving with quick-hitting passing games and effective ground games, and while the Bucs aren’t ideally positioned to take advantage of that they are good enough to put up points.
It would take a herculean effort from the defense and significant improvement from the offense to win this. It would take Atlanta punishing Brady for his bad balls and Ryan avoiding being punished for his. It would take the kind of effort we haven’t seen...well, this year, if we’re being honest, because the Vikings were a pretty shaky team when the Falcons played them.
In light of that, I’m expecting the Falcons to get thumped. Anything other than that will be a nice surprise.