Atlanta finds itself in the driver’s seat in the division and the Falcons get the chance to distance themselves from the pack on Sunday.
With a slim lead over the Buccaneers (5-7) and New Orleans Saints (5-7), Atlanta (6-6) can accelerate its march toward its first playoff game since 2017 by sweeping Tampa Bay.
The Falcons already own a win over the Bucs — 16-13 on Oct. 22 — who understand the gravity of this NFC South game and the stakes the rest of the season. If Tampa Bay wins at Atlanta, the Buccaneers are 6-7 and even in the standings with the Falcons.
“We viewed (last week) as a playoff game,” Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles said. “From here on out, every game we play is a playoff game, and most of them are division games that we play, so it’s really important for us to win those division games.”
The Falcons are 3-0 in division games but last won the NFC South in their Super Bowl runner-up season (2016). Quarterback Desmond Ridder is 2-0 against Tampa, beating them in the regular-season finale as a rookie and on Younghoe Koo’s 51-yard field goal earlier this season.
Ridder has just eight TD passes this season and the Falcons are 24th in points per game (18.8) and 22nd in passing (193.4 yards per game), portending a close game behind an offense that relies on runners to move the chains. Atlanta is sixth in the NFL in rushing with 135.2 yards per game and racked up 156 rushing yards in the Week 7 meeting. That was largely without rookie running back Bijan Robinson, who played a bit part due to illness.
Ridder said the Falcons left some “meat on the bone” with failed drives and stalled possessions in the red zone at Tampa Bay.
That’s a sentiment Baker Mayfield shared after re-watching the game.
“The first game was a little hard to watch, film-wise,” Mayfield said. “Their front and linebackers make it extremely hard to run the ball, just all over the field, especially down there. For us, it’s a good challenge. And it’s something we need to take the next step on.”
Running the ball is what the Falcons do best. No outside receiver has more than two touchdowns. Robinson leads the team with three TD catches.
“We know what the deal is. It’s going to be a battle,” Buccaneers safety Ryan Neal said. “They have a lot of athletes. They found a system they got going, a rhythm. We know what time it is. We got to come out and hit them in the mouth. It’s going to be that kind of game. Everybody knows it. The whole conference knows what time it is.”
Among the differences since the teams last met is the emergence of Buccaneers rookie pass rusher Yaya Diaby. He has 5.0 sacks in the past six games and moves from left to right to find the favorable matchups.
Ridder is agile and a threat to run. He also has six fumbles and eight interceptions and has been sacked 28 times this season.
Diaby will be joined in the front seven by linebacker Lavonte David (groin) and rookie SirVocea Dennis (illness), who were cleared to play. Linebacker Devin White (foot) and cornerback Jamel Dean (ankle/foot) were ruled out on Friday.
Run-defense anchor and nose tackle Vita Vea (foot) did not practice this week and is a game-time decision.
Atlanta’s defense is helping drive the playoff push, allowing 20 points per game, but the Falcons are filling spots due to injuries, too. Linebacker Nate Landman (knee) and defensive tackle David Onyemata (ankle) are out.
“This is the NFL, people are going to make plays but don’t give up (and) turn those into disasters and let them get momentum,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “That’s a credit to mindset.”
Mayfield’s radar will need to lock onto Falcons safety Jessie Bates, who has five of the Falcons’ seven interceptions this season. But Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, Jeff Okudah (ankle) and A.J. Terrell (concussion), are questionable for the high-stakes rematch.
“We win, we keep going. We lose, it’s over,” Neal said.
–Field Level Media