Let’s begin this article by acknowledging something: We may not even be watching this game on Sunday. Damar Hamlin’s collapse on the field from a cardiac event during Bills-Bengals and ongoing hospitalization has profoundly shaken the league, its players and coaches, and fans, and there has been open talk of the league pushing back the Week 18 schedule entirely. For all its inherent dangers and frequent scary on-field moments, this was something else entirely, and an incredibly grave moment that we’re all still reeling from.
If players and coaches want to play while they anxiously await word of Hamlin’s health, then they should do so, but the league should be prepared to postpone if there’s no desire to play. This was a reminder of every player’s mortality and how suddenly even professional athletes in the prime of their careers can find themselves in an emergency, but more than that, it was a widely-loved 24-year-old man so many players know and respect down on the field. Not everyone is going to be ready—or should be asked to—go right back out there in a few days and play NFL football with all the focus, intensity, and speed that requires after witnessing that. The season will likely roll on without interruption, but even the fact that there’s a conversation about a delay tells you how profoundly this has shaken the league.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that we’re all refreshing Twitter and pouncing on every update we get regarding Hamlin’s health, and of course hoping and praying that the news is positive when we get it. Secondary to that, we’ll just have to see if the Week 18 slate stays as it is scheduled today.
If the Falcons do play the Buccaneers this Sunday, here is what you’ll need to know about the season finale. It will provide perhaps the final chance for Atlanta to get a win against Tom Brady, so there’s your motivation for a win in the season finale.
Falcons - Buccaneers comparison
These offenses are sort of bizarro world versions of one another. Atlanta’s offense is clearly less talented overall, but they’re a bit better at scoring than Tampa Bay but less efficient between the 20s—that is changing of late—and a tremendous rushing team. The Buccaneers can move the ball between the 20s and put up gobs of passing yards, but can’t run at all. The gameplans Sunday will reflect those strengths, in all likelihood, with Tampa Bay airing it out and the Falcons bludgeoning a good (but not stellar) Buccaneers run defense.
Defensively these two teams just are not close. Atlanta’s run defense has been shaky and they’re hanging on by a thread through the air, with a stop-and-start pass rush not offering much pressure. We have to assume that Tom Brady will be throwing, throwing, throwing and will have all day to do so—except for Grady Jarrett’s inevitable two sacks against the man he appears singularly motivated to destroy—so it will be up to the secondary to make that an unsuccessful strategy.
The Tampa Bay defense, meanwhile, is excellent but has endured a rough patch. They’ve allowed 24 points or more in three of the past four weeks, including two 30-plus efforts by the the 49ers and Bengals. They also allowed a cool 151 yards rushing the last time these two teams met, and it’s hard to argue against Tyler Allgeier being better than he was back then. Atlanta’s going to run like hell and supplement it with Desmond Ridder throwing what we hope are lasers to break up the ground-based dominance.
How the Buccaneers have changed since the last time Atlanta saw them
Lineup-wise, the biggest change is that Julio Jones should be playing. The Falcons didn’t see their former star receiver last time out because he was injured, but it’ll add another degree of difficulty for Atlanta’s pass defense.
Otherwise, are fairly healthy and look similar to the team we saw back in early October, and their approach is going to be very similar. Brady threw 52 passes in that last game and will throw all day again, but the Bucs will hope to prey on a run defense that has been steadily weakening thanks to attrition since then, as well. It could be a long day for the defense, just like it was last time.
The cheery note, I suppose, is that the Falcons nearly pulled off a comeback last time around, so why not now?
What lies ahead
Usually when you play a team twice in a year, you get very different looks from them. That hasn’t really been the case in the NFC South this year, with the exception being the quarterback and other lineup changes for the Saints against the Falcons. The Buccaneers have been an absolute roller coaster this year and are clearly a bit of a shell of their 2020 and 2021 selves, but they’re more or less the same team the Falcons faced in early October plus Julio Jones.
That means the nature of the challenge is straightforward and clear enough. Tampa Bay is currently planning to roll out their starters, though they’ll likely have a quick hook if they fall behind early or get out to a robust lead of their own, given that their priority has to be playoff success. An injury now to, say, Tom Brady would submarine their faint hopes of a long postseason run, after all.
Expect the Buccaneers to try to put this one away early so they can go to their backups and coast through the afternoon, which likely means Brady trying to air it out early and with Leonard Fournette bulldozing his way through early downs. If Atlanta can get a timely turnover or stop in the early going, the offense will have to do its part to battle down and score and force the starters out by making a rally and the potential injuries associated with its not seem worthwhile. Unless Todd Bowles is really stubborn, this is likely to morph into a preseason game for the Buccaneers at some point either way, and given that the Falcons may only lose one spot in the draft order to beat Brady for the first time ever I am rooting for that victory.
For the Falcons, it’ll be about that opportunistic defense and Grady Jarrett raising hell as only he can do against Brady, but also a typically effective rushing attack. If Ridder can take another step forward and pilot the offense effectively, avoiding mistakes as he has over the past couple of weeks, then I think the lack of motivation for Tampa Bay and Atlanta’s ability to keep games close may well see them ending the season with one more win. If Tom Brady leaves the field cursing and frowning, we’ve had a good Sunday.
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