NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (6-9) at Atlanta (13-2)|
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons will close out a brilliant regular
season with an NFC South Division clash against the slumping Tampa Bay
Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome.
The road to the Super Bowl on the NFC side will go through Dixie after the
Falcons invaded the Motor City on Dec.22 and really showed the difference
between winning and losing organizations, topping an underachieving Lions team
content with celebrating Calvin Johnson's greatness.
"Megatron," of course, entered the record books, breaking Jerry Rice's mark
for most single-season receiving yards in NFL history. But, as has been the
case for most of the season, Johnson's stellar play didn't translate on the
Matt Ryan, on the other hand, continued his MVP-like play and threw four
touchdown passes as Atlanta clinched the NFC's top seed with a 31-18 walk in
Roddy White caught two of those scores and finished with 153 yards on eight
receptions for Atlanta, which also produced 17 points off three Detroit
Ryan finished a spectacular 25-of-32 for 279 yards and matched Steve
Bartkowski's 32-year old Falcons franchise record for touchdown passes with
"It means a lot because this was one of the goals," said White. "We wanted to
play in the (Georgia) Dome and have everybody come to us, and then we'll give
them our best shot."
Johnson made 11 grabs for 225 yards, upping his record total to 1,892,
certainly within earshot of 2,000. And that wasn't the only NFL record the
rangy superstar broke. Johnson also became the first player to record at least
100 receiving yards in eight straight games, surpassing a mark set by Charley
Hennigan in 1961 and matched by Michael Irvin in 1995.
"I've coached for 19 years in the NFL. I've never seen a better player than
Calvin Johnson," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz.
Perhaps, but there are sure a lot of teams better than Schwartz's
undisciplined bunch. You can't say the same thing about the Falcons, who
understand they really haven't accomplished anything yet.
The thought process in the ATL, is all about the postseason since Atlanta has
made losing in the first round a habit, one they hope to break by finishing
the 2012 campaign strong and entering the playoffs with a hot hand.
"I like our chances (in the playoffs) a lot better at home with the Dome
rocking," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "But it doesn't mean anything
obviously. We still have to go out there and play."
"Momentum is very important," Falcons coach Mike Smith added. "Sometimes it's
difficult to measure and quantify it. When you use the word momentum, you use
the word passion. You use the word purpose.
"It's important that you're playing efficiently and effectively in December
and January. That's what every team is striving for. Over the last two
seasons, the teams that were playing well in December and January and really
rolling were the teams that had the most success."
The Bucs, on the other hand, have hit the skids, losing their fifth straight
last Sunday, a 28-13 home loss to the St. Louis Rams.
Josh Freeman threw for an impressive 372 yards on 30-of-54 passing with one
touchdown, but was intercepted four times. Freeman also ran four times for 18
yards, while Doug Martin collected 62 rushing yards on 18 carries.
Mike Williams hauled in seven passes for 132 yards and a touchdown, while
Vincent Jackson caught seven balls for 108 yards for the Bucs.
"It's certainly disappointing," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "If you look at
the game, it's a case where St. Louis took advantage of their opportunities
and we had a lot of missed opportunities."
The all-time series between these two clubs is deadlocked at 19 after
Atlanta's razor-thin 24-23 win in Tampa back on Nov. 25. Ryan connected with
Julio Jones for 80-yard TD in that one while Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael
Turner each rushed for a TD.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Falcons are a perfect 7-0 at the Dome this season and have won 11 straight
overall at home. They already know they will host a playoff game on either
Jan. 12 or 13 but the team is 0-3 in the postseason under Smith so staying
hot and entering the postseason on a high-note is paramount.
"We'll handle it differently with our workload and the days that we're going
to work during our bye week and what our schedule will be," Smith said when
looking ahead to the postseason. "We're not going to do anything like we did
the last time."
The last time was when a 13-3 Falcons team got trounced by Green Bay 48-21 in
the divisional round after the 2010 season.
It's conceivable Smith could look at resting key players like Ryan and White
as well as Jones and Turner for at least part of Sunday's game.
"We're going to play the game to win," Smith said. "That's how we're going to
approach it. All games are important, and in terms of the importance, does it
have no bearing? It really does because we want to win every time we go out
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is out of the playoffs for a fifth straight
season under first-year coach Schiano but there is reason for optimism,
especially on offense.
Martin is third in the NFL in total scrimmage yards with 1,766 and Freeman,
who has thrown for a Tampa Bay single-season record of 3,843 yards, has shown
explosive ability but needs to be more consistent.
The Falcons will be attempting to match the franchise record for wins (14) set
in 1998 when they advanced to the organization's only Super Bowl. Some coaches
think winning is a habit and are loathe to rest their stars while others
believe the health of their key contributors is more important than anything
It will be interesting to see how Smith handles things but if you assume the
Atlanta starters gets most of the playing time, it's tough to imagine a
Buccaneers team coming apart at the seams having much of a chance.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 33, Buccaneers 17
12/27 13:03:01 ET