Josh Freeman has thrown eight interceptions in the last two weeks, after tossing just eight in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first 13 outings of 2012. Now, some of those picks weren't necessarily his fault, and he did throw for nearly 700 yards in that span, but it's fair to say that this wasn't his best stretch of the season.
That's because there have been some extremely good stretches to Freeman's third full season as a starter, as a contrast. Over one nine-game span, he threw at least two touchdown passes in eight of them. From Weeks 7-10, he tossed 10 TDs and no interceptions and racked up nearly 300 yards per game. Freeman has, in fact, done enough good that he has already broken the team's single-season passing yardage mark and tied its passing TD record.
Nobody is satisfied, least alone Freeman, because the Buccaneers are not in the playoffs. Still, there are plenty of reasons to anticipate the young quarterback finishing the 2012 season on a high note and building momentum heading into 2013.
"I'm excited to see Josh play," said Head Coach Greg Schiano before Sunday's season finale in Atlanta. "I think he had a great week of preparation. Some things happened in the last few weeks, but if you look at his overall body of work it's very impressive. I fully expect him to get back to the things he had done."
Neither Freeman nor Schiano favors the ubiquitous phrases suggesting that the quarterback is, "pressing," or, "trying to do too much." Still, Freeman allowed earlier in the week that he sometimes feels compelled to do something "above and beyond," rather than "letting the system create the plays." Clearly, Schiano wants his quarterback to return to doing the latter.
"We talk a lot about, 'Let's just keep it simple. Just keep doing it,'" said the coach. "And I don't mean simple in terms of scheme or anything like that. I mean simple as in, just read it out the way that we've talked about. We don't have to do anything special. There will be five or six plays that will decide the game – let them come to you, don't go chasing them. I think he's ready to do that."
Many NFL games do indeed come down to a small handful of deciding plays, and that usually seems to be the case when the Buccaneers and Falcons meet. Case in point, the first game between the two this season, which ended in a one-point Atlanta victory after the Buccaneers took a 23-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay missed several opportunities to put up seven points in the red zone and also had a shot in the final period on a 56-yard field goal try by Connor Barth that came up short.
"I imagine if you're not a Bucs fan it was a heck of a game to watch because it was exciting," remembered Schiano. "It was exciting for Buc fans, too, right up to the end. I think two teams got after it that Sunday and I fully anticipate two teams getting after it today."
There has been some question all week as to exactly what form of Falcon team will get after it on Sunday, since Atlanta has already clinched home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Falcons' game-day inactives provide some clues, in that it is mostly a list of reserves, barring starting S William Moore. Chris Hope will make his fourth straight start in place of Moore, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, but Atlanta announced no other changes to its starting 22.
That would indicate that such key players as QB Matt Ryan, WR Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez, S Thomas DeCoud, LB Sean Weatherspoon and DE John Abraham will suit up as usual. It would still not be a surprise to the see the Falcon coaches pull some of their regulars at some point during the game, but for now the Buccaneers have to assume their opponents are playing it straight.
Of course, they would have prepared for today's game the same way regardless of what the Falcons intended to do with their lineups.
"There are some personnel matchups that you're plugged into, but if they don't play then you just go back to your basics and play the game," said Schiano. "I don't really care who shows up. I just care about how the Bucs play."
The Buccaneers' inactives include CB Eric Wright, who was activated from the reserve list on Saturday but will not play in the season finale. The remaining inactives are RB Michael Smith, LB Jacob Cutrera, G Roger Allen, WR Chris Owusu, DT Corvey Irvin and DT Matthew Masifilo. Allen is out due to injury.
Atlanta's inactives, in addition to Moore, are QB Dominique Davis, CB Chris Owens, C Joe Hawley, G Phillipkeith Manley, G Harland Gunn and DT Travian Robertson. Moore and Owens were out due to injury.
The Bucs and Falcons will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be televised by FOX and broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Buccaneers.com will post a running blog of all the action on Sunday, and will also provide coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.