It’s time for round two of Atlanta Falcons - Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The last time these two teams play, the Falcons mostly smothered the Bucs, but were nearly undone by three red zone turnovers. This time, the Falcons are surging and the Bucs look like a shell of the team that came into that previous matchup at 3-2, given that they’ve lost six of their past eight games.
With the Falcons set to play at home, with injuries piled up for both teams, and given the divisional implications for both teams, it’s fair to expect some chaos in this matchup. I’d love nothing more than for Atlanta to shut down the Bucs handily, move to 7-6, and put themselves in a prime position to take the NFC South. Rarely are things so easy for the Falcons, of course, but we’ll find out if the offense can take a step forward against a Bucs defense that has not exactly lit the world on fire of late.
Here’s what you should know about Sunday’s game.
Falcons - Bucs head-to-head comparison
Falcons - Buccaneers Team Rankings
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The Falcons can run the ball most weeks—the Jets game was the just the second time in the last eight weeks they’ve been held under 100 yards—and did so against the Bucs last time out to the tune of 156 yards. That’s the core strength of the offense, and Arthur Smith’s recent embrace of that fact is a plus for the offense. The passing game, meanwhile, remains a handful of really nice Desmond Ridder throws, some after-the-catch work by Atlanta’s receiving options, and another dash of awful decisions with the football. We’re still waiting for that attack to look consistently even solid, but the Buccaneers do have a shaky pass defense minus their penchant for turnovers.
Defensively, Atlanta’s done very well against the run consistently and have feasted on poor passing attacks, with a weeks-long stretch of trouble bringing them down a bit from the heights they’d otherwise be at. They smothered the Jets and did excellent red zone work against the Saints, and last time out they more or less let Baker Mayfield do the same thing as Derek Carr before forcing a stop or turnover. If the pass rush can get rolling a bit Sunday, it will help, but otherwise expect plenty of between the 20s productivity for Tampa Bay and hopefully more silence in the red zone.
The Bucs started the year hot, but have fallen back to where you’d expect them to be over the past several weeks. They have one of the league’s least productive rushing attacks, a solid but unspectacular passing attack despite the presence of some true greats in Mike Evans and Chris Goodwin, and an opportunistic defense that does their best work in the red zone but scuffles a bit in the open field. Tampa Bay’s calling card remains that defense and an occasionally very effective passing attack. When those things are working, they’re a tough out; when they’re not, they’re a bad football team.
How the Buccaneers have changed
The Bucs are the same team they were last time, just pretty banged up. Baker Mayfield had an MRI on his ankle before last week’s game, and while it was negative, he has had two of his quieter games of the season over the past three weeks. The team’s entire group of inside linebackers minus J.J. Russell are dealing with some sort of injury, Tristan Wirfs appears to be hobbling in recent weeks, and Chris Godwin is slowly working his way back. While the Falcons are hurting themselves, they’re not going to face a Tampa Bay team at close to full strength the way they did earlier this season.
What to know about Sunday’s game
If the Jets game was a story of slugging out a low-scoring slopfest in the rain, this game may very well be a story of higher-than-expected scoring and lapses. Both teams come into this one with legitimate injury concerns, and I expect that to kick up the absurdity a notch.
Start with our Falcons. While Kaleb McGary missing time will hurt the ground game against a potent Buccaneers front, this team ran for 156 yards last time out and should be able to put together a useful attack this time out, as well. The passing game also had a pretty successful day against the Bucs in their first meeting, with Desmond Ridder’s many red zone fumbles keeping that game from being a blowout. I don’t expect a more dinged-up Tampa Bay defense to hold this offense to 16 points this time out, but the specter of turnovers is always lurking, given that they’re good quite good at forcing them. The fact that their inside linebacker group is unbelievably banged up right now should help the Falcons work the middle of the field and find opportunities in the passing game for Bijan Robinson, and their pass defense is far from spectacular in general. If Ridder is going to get this thing rolling, the team he put up a 76% completion rate and 250 yards against last time out seems like a fair time to expect it.
Defensively, Atlanta will have a tough road. Godwin is not 100% and Mayfield is not superb, but a really good Bucs offensive line and some compelling weapons will create problems for a Falcons team likely down Nate Landman, A.J. Terrell, and possibly Jeff Okudah. The fact that Atlanta’s run defense is good enough to slow a Bucs ground game that has been very productive the past two weeks is a big point in their favor, but I worry about Mike Evans feasting against a dented secondary. This feels like one of those weeks where Baker Mayfield will have some success throwing it and scrambling barring a big day from the pass rush, which will likely lead to an afternoon of frustration. There’s nothing about Tampa Bay’s offense of late that suggests they’ll be spectacular—the passing game has been held under 200 yards the past two weeks—but we saw Mayfield sling it well last time out against a defense that was much closer to full strength. Expect chaos.
I have a gut feeling that injuries and the fact that both teams have been waiting on an offensive breakout for a while will conspire to create a high-scoring contest by their standards—think in the mid-to-upper 20s for both teams—and that the team that wins the turnover margin will likely emerge victorious. The past two weeks, the Falcons have done more than enough defensively and just enough offensively to win, but they may need to flip the script a bit to walk away with a victory on Sunday. If they can manage to do so, that 4-0 divisional record and 2023 2-0 record against the Buccaneers will likely mean a lot come season’s end.