NFL Preview - Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Five interceptions and a 40.5 quarterback rating usually
isn't a recipe for success. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan proved
In the NFL, all that matters is the end result and the Falcons got what they
wanted despite a sloppy performance on both sides of the football. The Falcons
will try not to make it so hard on themselves when they face the NFC South-
rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first time this season Sunday afternoon.
Atlanta maintained its best record in the NFC at 9-1 by squeezing out a 23-19
win over the Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome, where Ryan was intercepted
a career-high five times and completed 28-of-46 passes for 301 yards. Ryan did
not throw a touchdown pass for the second time in three weeks and his 40.5 QB
rating was the lowest since he registered a 29.6 back in Week 2 of the 2008
campaign -- his rookie season.
Ryan saved his best performance for last in the fourth quarter versus the
Cardinals and led the Falcons on a go-ahead drive with less than seven minutes
remaining in the game. His confidence and poise never wavered in leading
Atlanta into scoring position, as Michael Turner pounded his way into the end
zone from a yard out for the decisive score. It ended a seven-play, 70-yard
drive, while Ryan completed 4-of-5 pass attempts for 64 yards.
"I've said it before: he never changes, if he throws five touchdowns or five
picks," Falcons center Todd McClure said. "He never changes. He stands in
there. He takes some hits. He had blood coming out of his mouth at one point
today and he was back up and ready to go again. Unbelievable guy, and a great
guy to play with."
Ryan said postgame that part of the game is understanding there will be some
hard times and adversity staring you in the face. Getting up and continuing to
throw the football and forgetting about the last play are key in progressing.
Ryan, whose teams are 29-1 when he reaches a passer rating of 100 or better,
has displayed an ability to stay calm in tight situations. He has led the
Falcons to 20 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most
in the NFL since his rookie season. He has accomplished the feat four times
already this season.
"I think that there are a lot of hats you wear as quarterback. Part of it is
player, and part of it is keeping everybody on the same page and being
relaxed," said Ryan, who had never thrown more than three INTs in a game. "Our
message was that even after turning the ball over three times in the first
half, we were still right there; we were one score away."
The Falcons, who overcame six turnovers to win, bounced back from their first
loss of the season a week before on the road at New Orleans and will play
three of the next five games on the road. They had a franchise-best 4-0 road
record to start the season come to an end against the Saints.
Atlanta's schedule for the remainder of the season features two games with
Tampa Bay, and matchups with the Saints, Panthers, Giants and Lions. That
shouldn't prevent the Falcons from reaching the playoffs for a third straight
season and for the fourth time in five years.
Tampa Bay needed some late-game magic of its own to remain in the win column
last weekend, as it posted a 27-21 overtime victory at Carolina.
The Bucs trailed by 11 points with roughly six minutes to play, about the same
amount of time Atlanta needed to pull away, and tied the game on Josh
Freeman's 24-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion to Vincent Jackson
with 12 seconds to go. With a little help from standout rookie running back
Doug Martin, Freeman orchestrated a game-winning 80-yard drive in OT,
culminating with Dallas Clark's 15-yard TD catch for the final margin.
"Would we love to win games by 14, 21 points? Of course you would," Jackson
said afterward. "But it's not something you hope for. You prepare for the
worst and you'll be ready for anything."
The Buccaneers have won four in a row and five of six games, and seem ready to
make a run at the playoffs in crowded NFC. But Clark wasn't ready to lead the
Bucs' bandwagon just yet.
"I hope we go back and look at the film and say, 'Hey we didn't play well,'"
Clark said. "Sure, we played well enough to make some plays to win at the end,
but to get where we want to go, that's not good enough football."
Freeman has blossomed, as evidenced by his 16 touchdown passes in the last six
games. He has only three interceptions in that time and was picked off twice
against the NFC South-rival Panthers. Freeman posted a 73.5 quarterback
rating, ending a string of five games with at least a 100 score.
The Buccaneers split last season's series with the Falcons, but have lost six
of the previous seven meetings in the series. In six career games against
Atlanta, Freeman has 10 interceptions -- the most against any team -- eight
touchdown passes and 1,248 passing yards. Ryan has faced the Bucs eight times
in his career, totaling 1,478 passing yards, nine picks and eight TDs. The
nine interceptions are the most against any opponent.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Buccaneers running back Martin is making a case for Rookie of the Year and has
compiled 100-plus yards from scrimmage in six straight games. He enjoyed his
third 100-yard rushing game (138 yards) in the last four weeks against the
Panthers and played an instrumental role in the overtime drive.
Martin is the sole reason why Tampa Bay is ninth in rushing yards this season
with 128.9, and also is a piece in the passing game. Martin, who has exactly
1,000 rushing yards on the season (3rd in NFL) and leads the league in yards
from scrimmage owns 27 receptions for 319 yards and a score. Atlanta has good
linebackers and a solid front line to slow down Martin, but it was gashed for
137 yards on the ground against Arizona. Not having linebacker Sean
Weatherspoon (ankle) on Sunday due to an ankle problem could be an issue.
Weatherspoon, who missed the past three games and said he feels a lot better
this week, is questionable Sunday.
"I think Spoon is a run and hit linebacker. He sits in there in our sub
defense at the middle linebacker position and plays outside linebacker in our
base package and Sean is one of our best football players," Falcons head coach
Mike Smith said. "Not only on the defensive side, but on our football team.
We've missed him and we are looking forward to getting him back. Hopefully
it's sooner than later."
The Falcons obviously can counter Tampa Bay's ground game with their third-
rated passing attack (292.9 ypg). That's, of course, if Ryan keeps the ball
out of the Bucs' hands. However, Martin will be key to the Buccaneers' offense
and faces an Atlanta team 26th in rushing yards allowed (130.5 ypg) and 18th
in yards against (346.8 ypg).
Atlanta has arguably the best receivers and tight end in the game. Roddy
White, Julio Jones and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez can give
nightmares to opposing defensive coordinators. Jones sustained an ankle injury
against the Cardinals and is questionable for Sunday. Jones had just 33 yards
on three catches, and hasn't scored since Week 8.
"I think the injury situation is going to be better than it was last week. We
had some guys that were banged up. We have some guys that we are anticipating
that did not play in the ballgame last week that were scratched because of
injuries will be back participating with us this week," Smith said. "It'll be
good to get some of those guys back."
White leads the Falcons with 946 yards on 62 catches. Gonzalez is first with
64 receptions and six TDs to go along with 650 receiving yards. Those two
alone can be a deadly combination for a Bucs defense that is last against the
pass, allowing 312.6 yards per game, but is third with 15 INTs. On the other
hand, Tampa Bay could force Atlanta to be one dimensional with its top-rated
run defense. And that's not good for Turner, who is averaging 53 rushing yards
over the past six weeks.
This week will be a good test for Bucs rookie safety Mark Barron. He'll have
veteran safety Ronde Barber to seek advice from before and during the game.
Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett leads the team with seven sacks and will
have to apply pressure up front to disrupt Ryan, who has been sacked in every
game and once in each of the past two.
Every game is a must-win situation for the Buccaneers. The pressure is on and
facing the rival Falcons will be a good test for Greg Schiano's team that is
one of at least five fighting for a Wild Card spot. Winning the NFC South
seems out of the question because Atlanta is three games ahead. But in order
to keep pace with the likes of Dallas, Chicago, Minnesota, New Orleans and
Seattle, the Bucs have to finish games in regulation and Freeman must continue
his latest surge. Martin will continue to deliver for Tampa Bay, which should
squeak past the Falcons at home for a fifth straight win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 26, Falcons 21
11/22 08:54:38 ET
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