These things are never perfectly defined, but the Atlanta Falcons are probably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' biggest rival. According to Buccaneers' Head Coach Raheem Morris, however, it's not currently a rivalry.
Tampa Bay hopes to change that on Sunday afternoon.
The NFL obviously thinks there is a lot of entertainment value in this matchup of division foes that combined for 23 regular-season wins last year, scheduling it for the 4:15 time slot when it can gain more of a national audience. And on paper it is definitely compelling; the winner will have at least a share of first place in what has been the league's most consistently competitive division.
But Morris would point to the fact that Atlanta has won the last five installments in the series, including all four since he took over as the Bucs' head coach, as an indication that something has been missing in this admittedly emotional head-to-head affair.
"It's not a rivalry yet," said Morris. "They've won them all. It's our job to go out there and make it a rivalry today, right now."
Both Bucs-Falcons games in 2010 came down to the wire, and the fact that Atlanta prevailed in both essentially decided the division title and kept Tampa Bay out of the postseason. The late-game drama definitely emphasized how tight this particular series is, but Morris said the nature of the Bucs' losses isn't particularly important in the long run. What matters is that Atlanta got the 'W' in both cases.
"It really doesn't matter," he said. "They won both of them, whether it was one point or 20 points. It doesn't matter. Our job is to go out there and win the football game today by any means necessary. You've got to go out there and play the game today. You can't worry about the past. You can't change those games. The only thing you can change is what happens today and what's going to happen in the future."
The Bucs changed their future just seven days ago when they rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to steal a 24-20 win at Minnesota. While it was just one decision among 16 in this regular season, it felt much more significant. It set the Bucs up for a first-place battle on Sunday, as opposed to leaving them in an 0-2 hole that would have invited quite a bit of skepticism about the team's 10-6 campaign the year before. Obviously, Morris appreciated his team's efforts in that wild second half, but he doesn't think it's worth dwelling on any longer.
"Seems like a month ago," he said. "It was certainly a great comeback, a nice job by our team of staying fundamentally sound and sticking with the plan. Now it's time for us to move on and get ready to face a great opponent today."
Morris doesn't want his team riding the "emotional roller coaster," so he is careful not to place too much emphasis on any game, even one as inspiring as the victory in Minnesota. That said, the game was yet another piece of compelling evidence that the Bucs have a young franchise quarterback who is capable of excelling in the most dire of circumstances.
Morris doesn't expect that to change because he sees 23-year-old passer Josh Freeman in action every day, not just in crunch time on Sunday afternoon.
"It's just more about his preparation," said Morris. "He's one of those guys who can be smiling on the sideline in a serious moment and that's because he knows what he has to do. He's prepared and it's something that's going to get done because he knows how to do it. And if he's not able to do it, he's not afraid to fail.
"He's confident. He should remain confident. He's one of those guys who can go out there and get it done. It doesn't matter what anybody thinks about him, how you think his demeanor should be, he's going to be calm, cool and collected and lead this football team."
Freeman's group will be a man down, as starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black will not play due to the ankle injury he sustained in Minnesota. The Bucs will cover Black's absence by starting second-year man Quincy Black in his spot and turning over the defensive play-calling duties to rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster. Foster will also take over Black's role in the nickel defense.
"We'll miss Quincy this week but we have the ability to put Dekoda Watson in his starting 'Sam' position," said Morris. "Then once we go to nickel we'll just leave Mason Foster out there and let him control the defense and keep running things. It's the 'next man up' thing again. The guys have got to go in there and do a better job than what Quincy was doing for us, if they can. That's the only thing that his teammates expect."
In a way, Black's absence will lead to a more traditional assignment of roles among the linebackers. In most years, the Bucs' nickel defense – what a team puts on the field to combat a three-receiver set – involves bringing in an extra defensive back and taking the strongside linebacker off the field. That left the middle and weakside linebackers on the field, and since the middle linebacker usually makes the defensive play calls, the transition was smooth. This year, in order to ease Foster into his important role as the 'Mike' linebacker, the Bucs took him off the field in the nickel package and kept the Sam (Black) and Will (Geno Hayes) linebackers on the field. Thus, Morris made Black the defensive play-caller since he was going to be on the field for every defensive snap.
Now, Foster will take on the play-calling duties and stay on the field with Hayes when the nickel is employed. Morris thinks the former University of Washington star is ready for the expanded role.
"He did a nice job in that second game when he was forced into that nickel role [after Black was injured]," said the Bucs' coach. "He's done a nice job in practice, preparing for that role one day. Hopefully we'll get him out there in a full-time position, and here we go. Another challenge and we're looking forward to it."
Black is one of three Buccaneers who will not play on Sunday due to injury. Reserve tackle James Lee (knee) and slot receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) have been ruled out since Friday. Without Lee, the Bucs will rely on versatile lineman Jeremy Zuttah, the starting left guard, to bounce out to tackle if anything happens to Donald Penn or Jeremy Trueblood. And with Stroughter still sidelined the Bucs will hope to get another big performance out of second-year wideout Preston Parker, who caught six passes for 98 yards against the Vikings.
"Sammie went down the week before, one of our key players and a role player who does a great job for us, and we were able to plug in Preston Parker there," said Morris. "He filled in with the 'next man up' mentality and did a nice job. Hopefully he can keep that thing going. It's what our team is made of. It's made of a bunch of guys from the bottom that go out there and work every single week and are able to make the big play. These are just guys filling their roles – Preston Parker, Dekoda Watson, Cody Grimm. Let's go to work, men."
In addition to Black, Lee and Stroughter, the Buccaneers deactivated RB Allen Bradford, S Larry Asante, CB Anthony Gaitor and G Derek Hardman. CB Myron Lewis, who has been recovering from a hamstring injury, will suit up for the first time in the regular season, as will reserve offensive tackle Demar Dotson.
The Falcons have two changes to their starting lineup today, as DT Jonathan Babineaux and LB Stephen Nicholas, of USF fame, are out. Former first-round pick Peria Jerry will start at DT for the third straight week and accomplished veteran Mike Peterson will take over for Nicholas.
In addition to Babineaux and Nicholas, the Falcons deactivated CB Kelvin Hayden, CB Darrin Walls, C Brett Romberg, G Mike Johnson and DE Cliff Matthews. Babineaux, Nicholas and Hayden were out due to injury.
The Bucs and Falcons kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.