Out of nowhere, the Atlanta Falcons that we all expected coming into the season are back. The offense is putting up points; the defense is fast and physical like Dan Quinn has preached since his arrival five years ago, and even special teams are beginning to make some game-changing plays. On all three phases, the Falcons are rolling, which has led to back-to-back blowout victories over division rivals on the road. Atlanta will look to pick up a third straight divisional game as they return home for the first time this month on Sunday.
In the first year under Bruce Arians, despite all the hype, the Bucs have not changed much. They still can throw the ball at will with Jameis Winston, ranking fourth in the NFL in passing yards, but Winston’s turnovers remain their Achilles’ Heel. He’s thrown only one more touchdown (19) than he has interceptions (18), and it has killed any chance Tampa Bay may have thought they had at making the playoffs.
That should be music to the ears of the Falcons defense, as they have transformed into a team that his hungry for sacks and turnovers. Over the past two weeks, Atlanta has recorded 11 sacks, forced four interceptions, and has not allowed a single touchdown. While I don’t expect the latter to continue this week, they should have success getting after the quarterback again. Tampa Bay’s line isn’t very good, Winston has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, and when you can pressure Winston, great things usually happen for your defense.
On the back end is where the Falcons are going to have to be as crisp as ever. Atlanta’s secondary will be up against one of the best wide receiving duos in the NFL – Chris Godwin and Mike Evans – as well as a mastermind playcaller in Arians. Three weeks ago, this would have been a nightmare for the Falcons defense. But with Kendall Sheffield playing like he is, Desmond Trufant returning, Damontae Kazee back at safety, and Raheem Morris coaching them up, the secondary has become a force to be reckoned with. However, this will be a much more difficult task than defending the receivers of the Saints and Panthers.
One thing the Falcons shouldn’t have to worry about is the Buccaneers’ rushing attack. They feature a two-headed backfield of Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber, but neither will strike too much fear into Atlanta’s front seven. Tampa Bay is only averaging 94.8 rushing yards per game – good for 21st in the league.
Offensively, Matt Ryan and company should be salivating at this matchup. The Buccaneers have allowed the most points per game this entire season (31.3) along with almost 300 yards through the air per contest. Sunday could be one of those matchups where Julio Jones has a monster performance. And if they attempt to take him out of the game, look for Calvin Ridley to replicate his stat line from last week of eight catches for 143 yards and a touchdown.
The one promising part of the Bucs’ defense is their front seven. Led by Ndamukong Suh and a trio of athletic linebackers, Tampa Bay is one of the best teams at defending the run, allowing just over 80 rush yards per game. They are also fantastic at defending backs in the passing game, so I wouldn’t expect a breakout performance from Brian Hill in Devonta Freeman’s absence. Atlanta’s offense will feature primarily an aerial attack, but still, expect Dirk Koetter to get creative in the running game to keep the Bucs honest.
This is an extremely winnable game for the Falcons, and it’s the first one they are the favorites in since they played the Cardinals. This is also the most points they’ve been favored by (4.5) all season, as they return home following two road games. The Benz has been lifeless the last few times out, but the fans might show up after how this team has responded following the bye week.
It should be a fun one on Sunday, and I think the Falcons have what it takes to make it three in a row against division rivals.
Prediction: Falcons 34, Buccaneers 20