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17

NFL Preview - Atlanta (2-6) at Tampa Bay (1-7)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - It's high time for a Gulf Coast trip for the Atlanta Falcons.

Upon arriving, the Falcons will encounter the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a Sunday afternoon get-together at Raymond James Stadium, which may be the only thing capable of shaking the perpetually underachieving team out of its most recently maddening skid.

Last time the Falcons played the Bucs - at home in the Georgia Dome in Week 4 - they proceeded to hang a 56-14 beating on Tampa Bay that both approached the franchise's historic best for most lopsided scoreboard margin and seemed to signal a then 2-1 team was ready to make some NFC South noise.

Six succeeding weeks have brought five losses and a bye, quieting the din significantly.

In fact, in its most recent game two weeks ago in London, Atlanta saw an impressive 21-0 halftime lead gradually devolve turn into a disheartening 22-21 loss.

"We haven't finished games on the road like we need to," coach Mike Smith said. "I'd say that's probably the thing that stands out over the span you're talking about."

Smith's job security could become victim No. 1 if the five-game skid gets any closer to the seven-game slide that dimmed the 2003 season en route to a 5-11 finish. The Falcons were 4-12 last season, just a year after going 13-3 and reaching the NFC Championship Game.

"You can't worry about all the things being said outside this building," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "When things are not going your way and you're not winning games, there is going to be criticism. We understand that."

Ryan completed all but three of 24 passes in September's opening round against the Buccaneers, accounting for 286 yards and three touchdowns. He's thrown for 228 yards in each of the last two games while being sacked 11 times over his last three.

Wide receiver Julio Jones had nine catches for 161 yards and two TDs in the September game, but he's not scored since.

On defense, the Falcons have managed only seven sacks in eight games, three of which came against the Bucs.

"We're 32nd in the league in sacks," Smith said. "We have shown some improvement. It hasn't necessarily shown up on the sack tally, but I do feel that we've shown some improvement."

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is hoping some quarterback transition will mean a change in results.

The Bucs have lost four in a row since picking up their lone win of the season - against Pittsburgh, a week after the initial Atlanta debacle - and they've lost all four home starts so far in 2014.

Taking snaps for the first time since the meeting with the Falcons will be Josh McCown, who suffered a thumb injury in that game and has been subsequently sidelined while coach Lovie Smith kicked the tires on second-year passer Mike Glennon.

Smith, though, claimed this change is solely due to McCown's return to full health, sort of.

"Josh was the starter before he got hurt. He's healthy and he's back in," he said. "It's the same with every position. You look at the production, and what we're getting at the time. We need better play at the quarterback position. You start with that. We need a little boost. It's like that with all positions. If the play isn't what we think it should be, we're going to look and see if there's another option we can look at."

McCown was 0-3 with a 65.8 passer rating, four interceptions and two TDs in his three starts.

Atlanta led the September game, 56-0, after three quarters. Were it not for two late Bucs touchdowns, the margin would have surpassed the franchise's lowlight of 45-point defeats in 1999 and 2011.

"We're well aware of what happened the first time around and we're just appreciative that we get an opportunity to redeem ourselves and play them again," Smith said. "This time, we need to play a lot better."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The Force that's With Them

Not much has gone right for the Buccaneers in 2014, but they have received stellar play from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who recorded a pair of sacks in last week's loss to the Cleveland Browns to bring his total to five in the six games he's played this season. The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder is justifying the big contract extension he signed a few weeks ago, and the Falcons will need to game plan for him.

A Cure for What Ails Them

It's nothing if not a well-timed visit to Florida for QB Ryan and the rest of the Atlanta offense, which had followed up its 56-point windfall with consecutive outputs of 28, 20, 13, 7 and 21. Keeping Ryan vertical will be step one - see: McCoy, Gerald - but if Atlanta's offensive line is up to that task, the prospects for perhaps approaching the 30-point threshold again get significantly better.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Bucs seemed at least momentarily awoken by the initial game's slaughter, responding with a defeat of the Steelers and hanging in on the way to an overtime loss against New Orleans. But then they gave up 48 against Baltimore, and two post-bye games have yielded a total of 30 points on offense. Tampa Bay doesn't score enough and they don't step people enough. Against Ryan, that's a bad mix.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 28, Buccaneers 14

11/09 10:59:45 ET