On December 8, 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played host to the Atlanta Falcons in a game big enough to draw the NFL commissioner to town. The contest was billed as an elemental battle between Tampa Bay's incredible defense and the league's newest offensive star, Michael Vick. The Buccaneers' defense won that battle, and the game, 27-7, and Tampa Bay went on to win the NFC South and, eventually, Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Buccaneers and Falcons have played a handful of meaningful December contests at Raymond James Stadium since the NFC South was formed in 2002. A Christmas Eve day matchup in 2005 turned in the Bucs' favor in overtime, turning a potential elimination game into the division lead. In 2008, the Buccaneers and Falcons were both 9-5 heading into a Week 15 matchup in Tampa; the visitors won and made the playoffs while the Bucs were left on the outside. Tampa Bay got the better of a December meeting in 2007; Atlanta prevailed in 2010.
It's time for another chapter in that story. On Sunday, the 5-6 Buccaneers will welcome the 6-5 Falcons to town, and both teams are treating it as, essentially, a playoff elimination game.
"It's been a while since we had a home game where we're really in it and it really mattered in the big picture," said Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith. "We're relevant again and we need to play that way. We realize what's at stake."
December relevance is no given in the NFL. What is nearly a guarantee for those teams still in the playoff race is that roster health is going to be a factor. In the Buccaneers' case, there is some pretty significant news in that regard in Week 13, both good and bad. That news begins with the hand injury that caused Gerald McCoy to undergo a medical procedure early in the week and will now keep him out of Sunday's big game. McCoy, who has been to the last three Pro Bowls, is the Buccaneers' sack leader again in 2015.
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"He is making progress but he'll miss today's game," said Smith of his linchpin defender. "It should be a short-term injury but of course he won't play today. Henry Melton will step into that role and start at the three-technique position."
The Buccaneers will also be without their second-leading sack artist, Jacquies Smith, who is dealing with a hamstring injury. He and fellow defensive end George Johnson (calf) will be sidelined, leaving the edge-rushing job up to Will Gholston, Howard Jones, Josh Shirley and Kourtnei Brown. That shuffled defensive line will also have to hold up against a strong Falcons rushing attack that gets their lead man back from a concussion in second-year back Devonta Freeman.
"[He's] just one of the best running backs in the game right now so we'll just have to be really sound and disciplined in our gaps, controlling it," said Lovie Smith, whose defense held Indianapolis to 27 yards on 26 carries a week ago. "It's always been about stopping the run and we've done a good job stopping the run."
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On the other hand, Tampa Bay's offense will welcome back to young and important contributors in guard Ali Marpet and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Marpet, one of two rookie starters on the Bucs' offensive line, has missed the last three games with an ankle injury. Seferian-Jenkins, the second-year tight end who looked like an emerging-playmaker in the first two weeks of the season, hasn't played since mid-September.
"We've been waiting for Austin, who's been dealing with the injury for a while," said Smith. "He's working hard to get back on the field, but he's here now and we're excited about adding another good football player to our offense."
Marpet will step back in at right guard, but the Buccaneers' offensive line will be without Gosder Cherilus, who started the first 11 games at right tackle. Fortunately, the team is well-prepared to handle Cherilus's absence, with Demar Dotson stepping in. Dotson had started at that position for the previous three seasons before sustaining a knee injury in the 2015 preseason and spending the first half of the regular season on short-term injured reserve.
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"Cherilus has a little knee injury that he's dealing with so he'll be inactive today," said Smith. "And Ali Marpet had a good week of practice; he'll be starting today. Demar was on the injury list for a while. We activated him a few weeks back. He's looked good in practice and he's ready to go today."
In addition to McCoy, Smith, Johnson and Cherilus, the Buccaneers deactivated LB Bruce Carter, QB Ryan Griffin and TE Brandon Myers. Carter was also out due to injury.
Atlanta will turn to Shayne Graham to handle placekicks for a second straight week as K Matt Bryant is sidelined once again by a quad injury. T Tony Moeaki is also inactive due to injury. Atlanta's other five inactive players are CB Phillip Adams, S Charles Godfrey, RB Terron Ward, T Bryce Harris and DE Malliciah Goodwin.
The Buccaneers are going for their first season sweep of the Falcons since 2007. The first meeting was a 23-20 overtime decision in Atlanta in early November. The Falcons haven't won a game since but the Buccaneers are preparing for a serious fight on Sunday.
"I see a dangerous opponent," said Smith. "Offensively they had a lot of yards against us [in Week Eight]. The turnovers on their part really hurt them. Us taking the ball away four times really helped us. Offensively, they have a lot of stars; we know all the names. Defensively, they're playing good football. They're playing really hard and we'll need to be at our best."
The Buccaneers take on the Falcons on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.