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Fast start will be key if Falcons’ are to upset the Buccaneers

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this season, thanks to some sweat-inducing late-game heroics, some opined whether the Atlanta Falcons’ new identity was their ability to close out football games.

They have a golden opportunity this weekend against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to once again showcase that newfound identity.

I’m sure nothing would do more to invigorate sparse crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium than to see the home team shock the world by beating the defending world champions.

Because of that pedigree, the Bucs represent one of the biggest remaining tests for the Arthur Smith-led Falcons team this season. Earlier this season in Week 2, the Falcons were competitive against the Bucs, shrinking the latter’s early lead to within three points going in the fourth quarter before everything fell apart in the final stanza due to a pair of flukey pick-sixes from quarterback Matt Ryan.

The hope is that the team will improve upon that showing by being more outright competitive than they were months ago when they fell behind 21-10 at halftime.

Beating this Tampa Bay team will be a tall order for Atlanta and an expectation that few will have this week as the former is favored by one of the biggest spreads of the week. But even though moral victories are fairly maligned, achieving one by keeping this game close into the closing minutes would be a decent consolation prize should the team not pull off an unthinkable actual victory.

It would represent significant progress for a Falcon team that has frankly been too uncompetitive against quality opponents this year. The Falcons have lost three games this year by 24 or more points, the first time that has occurred in a single season for this franchise since their forgettable 2007 season.

And a competitive game against a superior Bucs team would provide some semblance of a confidence booster heading into a three-game stretch of winnable games following this week against the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, and Detroit Lions. That’s a stretch of games where the Falcons likely need to win multiple games to keep their thin postseason hopes alive.

A fast start on Sunday is a good indicator of success for this 2021 Falcons team since every one of their five wins this season has featured the team holding a halftime lead. Overall, the team’s record is 5-2 when leading at halftime this season.

Despite several notable finishes in their 2021 wins, generally, the Falcons have been a bad second-half team this year, owed in part to their tendency to let their opponents back into games. This has resulted in the NFL’s second-worst point differential in the second half, with the Falcon being outscored by a combined 87 points this year. Only the Houston Texans’ negative 98-point differential is worse this season.

Thus, it would appear for the Falcons to have any chance at a win on Sunday, they need to start fast against the Bucs. Something that is certainly achievable given the recent history of this matchup as well as the Bucs’ tendency to start slow on the road.

The last time Tampa Bay traveled to Atlanta in Week 15 of 2020 saw the team fall into a 17-0 deficit at halftime. Of course, the Bucs managed to climb out of the hole (no one ever said the second-half struggles were unique to this year’s team) and win that game 31-27.

But the hope is that the now Smith-led Falcons team can get off to a similarly strong start, keep their foot on the gas to put the Bucs off-kilter, and be in a position to win the game in the end. The Falcons’ tendency to get conservative late in games has been an issue throughout this season, which contributed to the team’s late-game collapse against Washington earlier this year, and arguably let Jacksonville back into the game a week ago.

After building a 21-3 lead midway through the third quarter this past Sunday, the Falcons opted to run the ball three consecutive times, failing to convert in shortyardage for the millionth time this season. It all resulted in their lone three-and-out of the game and Jacksonville went down the field to score their first touchdown of the day on the subsequent series, giving that team life heading into the fourth quarter.

That was life that would nonetheless be extinguished in the end, but the point remains that conservative play-calling has typically not been the Falcons’ friend this season and has contributed to their second-half woes.

Notably, the Bucs aren’t known for their ability to start fast on the road as well this year, giving the Falcons a greater potential for an early lead on Sunday. Tampa Bay has been outscored by their opponents this season by 23 points in their road games, which is tied for 23rd in the league this season. In fact, it’s one of the few categories where the Falcons might outrank the Bucs, since the Falcons rank 21st.

The Falcons have another opportunity to jump out early on the Buccaneers, and hopefully, unlike their last meeting in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they will showcase the growth that indicates they’re turning the page on their late-game collapses. If the Falcons can do this, it’ll be a clear sign that perhaps this team is poised for greater success the rest of this season.

Such growth is only so meaningful if it’s not coupled with another notch in the win column, but often with the Falcons, beggars can’t be choosers. Giving the home crowd a competitive, complete game against a quality opponent is something we’ve yet to see this season and represents something festive for the start of the holiday season.

Do you expect the Falcons to be competitive against the Bucs? Can they start fast, keep their foot on the gas, and avoid another late-game collapse? And can they pull off the improbable victory, even without the aid of the Derrick Henry clone that is close to arriving?