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NFL Preview - Atlanta (8-7) at Tampa Bay (3-12)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A game-time high of 57 degrees. Sunny skies. Light winds.
The perfect forecast for vultures. Or at least to talk about them.
If a recent series of reports citing unnamed sources and reputable rumors approaches true, Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium might be the last flight for first- year Bucs coach Raheem Morris.
Newspapers, blogs and Web sites have speculated former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher - he of the Super Bowl ring, jutting jaw and CBS studio job - is plotting the course for a return to the sidelines, with the Gulf Coast of Florida as his prime choice of landing spot.
According to a story by NFL.com reporter Jason La Canfora, Bucs officials reached out to Cowher to gauge his interest in possibly coaching the team in 2010.
The story cited "a source with knowledge of the situation."
The team officially declined comment. But another source, labeled by the Tampa Tribune as having knowledge of ownership's intentions, said, "That's not true. That's just people speculating."
Morris took over this year for Jon Gruden, who was fired after going 9-7 in 2008.
Tampa Bay enters the final week of 2009 on a two-game win streak, but just 3-12 overall.
Morris' learning curve appeared to take a giant swing upwards last week, when the Bucs rallied from 17 points down to tie and eventually defeat the NFC- leading New Orleans Saints in overtime.
The win came on the heels of a 24-7 triumph at Seattle on Dec. 20.
The team's only other win came Nov. 8, a 38-28 home defeat of Green Bay.
"I choose to laugh at or ignore some of the gossip," Morris said. "I left that stuff with Jerry Springer back in the day. When was the last time you've seen one of my owners speak publicly? That's not what we do around here. We don't have to answer to all of the critics. That's not our job.
"The assurance they gave to me is I have to do my job tomorrow. That's what I have to do. When you're put in a position to coach a football team, you coach it. That's what you do until they tell you to stop, and that's what I'm going to do now."
Elsewhere, the battered Falcons come into town with a pronounced limp, having stumbled from last year's 11 wins and a playoff berth to just 8-7 and postseason elimination this time around.
Among the injured, running back Michael Turner is listed as doubtful with a bad ankle and tight end Tony Gonzalez is questionable after injuring his calf last week against Buffalo.
Two other players - cornerback Chris Houston (hamstring) and offensive lineman Harvey Dahl (ankle/Achilles) - were placed on injured reserve this week, ending their seasons.
The Bucs-Atlanta game is one of only four on the entire NFL schedule involving two teams with zero playoff possibilities. However, a win for the Falcons would give the team consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history - 44 years.
"Whether it's hard to grasp or whatever, it is what it is," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We want to be the first team and we want to set it straight with the organization that we're going to have back-to-back winning seasons here and hopefully for a long time.
"Coach (Mike) Smith preaches to us all the time that there is a lot to learn week to week. I learned a lot this year and will as much against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I feel that if I can end the season a better quarterback than I started, then it will be a successful year."
Tampa Bay holds a 18-14 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta, but was a 20-17 road loser when the teams met in Week 12. The clubs embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and-home, with the Buccaneers coming up 24-9 home winners when the teams met in Week 2, and dropping a 13-10 decision at the Georgia Dome in Week 15. The Falcons last won in Tampa Bay in 2006, which is also the last time they swept the Buccaneers.
Smith is 2-1 against the Bucs as a head coach, while Tampa Bay's Morris is 0-1 against both Smith and the Falcons as a head man.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Appearing well recovered after a bout with turf toe, Ryan notched a 103.3 passer rating in the defeat of the Bills while throwing three TD passes and no interceptions. The Falcons are 9-0 in games where his rating reaches triple digits, and Ryan has won five consecutive starts in December. Turner, though he'll be limited at best, comes in needing 129 yards to reach 1,000 on the season. His 27 rushing TDs since 2008 are tied for tops in the league. In his absence, Jason Snelling exceeded 50 yards for the fifth time last week. Fellow running back Jerious Norwood had a TD catch in the teams' last meeting. Elsewhere, Gonzalez is four catches short of becoming the fourth tight end to reach 1,000. Wideout Roddy White needs a catch and 13 yards to become the first Falcon to reach 80 catches and 1,100 yards for three straight years. Lastly, Michael Jenkins is four catches from a third straight year with 50.
Flying in the face of Ryan's career-long December perfection is the Tampa defense's superlative track record against him, holding the Boston College alumnus to zero TDs against four interceptions and a passer rating of just 43. Along the superlatives, ageless cornerback Ronde Barber has two interceptions - one returned for a touchdown - along with a sack in his last four meetings with the Falcons. He is the lone player in NFL history with 25-plus sacks (25) and 35-plus interceptions (37). Surging linebacker Geno Hayes has a pair of interceptions, a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his last three games, while end Stylez G. White has posted six sacks in his last five tussles with Atlanta. In the backfield, safety Tanard Jackson has career- highs with four interceptions and two returns for touchdowns this season.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
The face of the franchise's new era, rookie quarterback Josh Freeman was stellar in his lone previous appearance against Atlanta, connecting on a personal-best 69 percent of his passes (20-of-29) with two touchdowns and no INTs. His passer rating for the game, a 20-17 loss in the final minute, was also a career-high 118.5. Running back Cadillac Williams caught one of Freeman's two scoring throws in that game, then busted out for 129 yards and a TD last week against the Saints - his highest rush total since going for 150 against Atlanta in 2005. Through the air, second-generation veteran Kellen Winslow has established franchise-bests with 72 catches and 828 yards for a tight end. Wideout Antonio Bryant aims for a third straight game against the Falcons with a TD, after compiling 11 catches for 199 yards and two scores in the previous two outings.
Along with the injuries, a pedestrian defense hasn't exactly helped as the Falcons have sought a return to the playoffs in 2009. Atlanta is allowing an average of 358.4 yards per game (111.4 rushing/247 passing), just slightly better than the 363.5 figure posted by a Bucs team with five fewer wins. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux leads the unit with six sacks and has recorded at least one in two of his last three matchups with Tampa Bay. The team has 27 on the season. Cornerback Brent Grimes is tops with five interceptions of the unit's total of 13, three of which have come in his last two games overall. Up front, veteran end John Abraham has historically feasted on the Bucs o-line, recording eight sacks in eight games. Lastly, second-year linebacker Curtis Lofton - a product of the University of Oklahoma - is tops on the team with 126 tackles, including 101 solos.
Those still involved in the championship rounds likely haven't relied on many Falcons or Bucs along the way, outside of perhaps a healthy White and Turner for Atlanta. The former is still out there as starter material, but the other is likely to be hampered if he plays at all. Nothing else, outside of perhaps a flier on the Atlanta defense and the banged-up Gonzalez if he plays, is worth much of a look.
The Bucs' recovery last week was admirable and their recent resurgence may or may not save Morris's job if it does stretch to three this week. Atlanta has more talent at most positions, though, and should keep that question from being asked.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Bucs 10
12/30 15:08:36 ET