The best play an NFL team can run usually loses a yard. It's called the 'Victory Formation,' and it's a simple kneel-down by a team with a lead in order to kill the remaining seconds on the game clock. The opposing team essentially does nothing.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to Atlanta in Week 18 to take on the Falcons in both team's regular-season finale, and in some respects it's a game-long equivalent of the Victory Formation. The Buccaneers are in possession of the NFC South title and the fourth seed in the conference playoff field, and there is nothing that can happen in Week 18 to change that. However, the Buccaneers do not plan to simply kneel the season out and the Falcons certainly won't be standing idly by.
Buccaneers Head Coach Todd Bowles made it clear on Monday that he plans to start his regulars, and that Sunday's game is an opportunity to fine-tune some areas of the team's execution and to build momentum heading into the playoffs. Tampa Bay is eager to ride a three-game winning streak into the postseason, and to finish the 2022 campaign with a winning record. The 6-10 Falcons, meanwhile, are continuing the development of a lot of young players and are working hard to finish their own season strong.
"We know that we can't be in the playoffs this year, but what we talked about is that we want to finish these last two games strong," said rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder, who has started the Falcons' last three games. "Finish it for something good for the future."
Atlanta already took care of half of that goal, defeating the visiting Arizona Cardinals, 20-19, in Week 17 on a 21-yard walk off field goal by Younghoe Koo at the end of an impressive 12-play drive on which Ridder completed all three of his passes. Ridder has yet to throw either a touchdown or an interception but his completion percentage and passer rating has improved in each successive start, peaking last week at 73.1% and 90.1, respectively.
Atlanta is not asking too much of their third-round rookie at this point, instead relying on one of the league's most potent rushing attacks. Led by another emerging rookie, fifth-rounder Tyler Allgeier, the Falcons picked up 132 yards on the ground against Arizona and are third in the NFL with an average of 159.0 rushing yards per game. Other NFL newcomers who are making Atlanta's future look bright include first-round wideout Drake London, who has a team-high 66 receptions for 746 yards and four touchdowns, and second-round edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie, who has 2.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.
The Falcons' defense ranks 29th in yards allowed and 23rd in points allowed but has been significantly more stingy of late. After allowing roughly 25 points per game through the first 11 games of the season, Atlanta has given up just 19 per contest over its last five outings. Relentless defensive lineman Grady Jarrett has racked up a team-leading 6.0 sacks to go with 11 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits, and third-year cornerback A.J. Terrell continues to develop into one of the NFL's best at his position.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, will be trying to prove that the explosiveness they displayed on offense in a 478-yard performance against the Panthers can be maintained, making them a serious threat in the playoffs. With his two starting tackles in place for the first time since November, Tom Brady had time to throw and he ripped off three long touchdown passes to Mike Evans during a 432-yard afternoon. Evans, the NFC Offensive Player of the Week, and Chris Godwin combined for 327 receiving yards as the Bucs' passing attack finally resembled the unit that had led the NFL in passing over the previous two seasons.
How long Brady and tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs, among other core veterans, will play on Sunday in Atlanta remains to be seen. It is possible that Bowles will choose to hold out a few players dealing with late-season injuries, and it's also possible he will choose a certain time to put others on the sideline. That said, the Buccaneers are hungry for a ninth victory and are hoping they can pull out the Victory Formation one more time during the 2022 regular season.
GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) at Atlanta Falcons (6-10)
Sunday, January 8, 1:00 p.m. ET
Mercedes-Benz Stadium (capacity: 71,000)
TV Broadcast Team: Adam Amin (play-by-play), Mark Schlereth (analyst), Kristina Pink (reporter)
Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station
Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)
ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES
From 1977 through last season, Tampa Bay and Atlanta played each other 57 times, and while each team has had an occasional hot streak in the series, the head-to-head record has rarely strayed too far from dead even. In fact, when the Buccaneers defeated the Falcons in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 13 last December, completing a season sweep, it caused the series lead to change hands for the eighth time overall. The Buccaneers now have the upper hand, 29-27, having won five in a row and six of the last seven.
The Buccaneers will go for their third straight season sweep in Atlanta on Sunday, and if they succeed they will match the longest winning streak for either team in the series. The Buccaneers also won six in a row from 1997-2003, a streak that bridged the Buccaneers' switch from the old NFC Central to the new NFC South in 2002 and made Atlanta and Tampa Bay division mates. Since the Bucs and Falcons became fellow South denizens, the Bucs have a slight 21-20 edge in the series. Atlanta's longest winning streak in the head-to-head battle with Tampa Bay is five, achieved twice, once from 2018-10 and again from 2016-18.
The most recent meeting was in Tampa in Week Five, with the Buccaneers holding on to a 21-15 victory. Tampa Bay controlled the action for three quarters and used two Leonard Fournette touchdowns to take a 21-0 lead into the final period before Atlanta stormed back with two touchdowns. After an Olamide Zaccheaus touchdown catch made it a one-score game, the Bucs' offense was able to drain the final 4:38 from the clock with one long drive.
The Bucs' two wins in 2021 were both by double-digit margins. In Week at Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers got five touchdown passes from Tom Brady, including two each to Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski – plus Mike Edwards' two fourth-quarter pick-sixes as an exclamation in a 48-25 victory. In the rematch in in Atlanta, Chris Godwin set a team single-game record with 15 catches and Gronkowski once again found the end zone twice in Tampa Bay's 13-point win. Russell Gage, who is now a Buccaneer, caught 11 passes for 130 yards for the Falcons.
Prior to retaking the series led last year ,the Buccaneers had been on top with a 24-22 advantage midway through the 2016 season before Atlanta reeled off five straight victories in a streak that included sweeps in 2017 and 2018. With at least 30 points scored in each of its last five victories while storming back to the top, Tampa Bay has increased its the all-time scoring advantage in the series, with 1,323 points in those 57 games compared to 1,241 for the Falcons.
In their run to the Super Bowl championship in 2020, the Buccaneers won eight straight spanning the regular season and the postseason, and they downed the Falcons twice in the final three weeks of the regular season, scoring a total of 75 points. Tampa Bay won, 31-27, at Atlanta in Week 15 and then took the rematch in Tampa by a 44-27 margin. The first win required a wild comeback after the Falcons raced out to a 17-0 halftime lead, with Tom Brady throwing for 330 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. The second game at Raymond James Stadium was less stressful, as the Buccaneers led from wire to wire, but included another huge day by Brady, who threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns.
The Buccaneers came close to taking both halves of the series in 2019, winning by a 35-22 score in Atlanta and taking a 22-16 lead into the fourth quarter in the Week 17 rematch in Tampa. However, Matt Ryan led a game-tying drive in the final three minutes of that contest, leading to Younghoe Koo's 33-yard field goal as time expired in regulation. The Buccaneers won the overtime coin toss but lost the game on the first play of the extra period, as Jameis Winston's last pass for Tampa Bay was picked off and returned 27 yards for a touchdown by Deion Jones.
Both of the games in 2018 went down to the wire, neither ending well for the Buccaneers. In Week Six in Atlanta, Tampa Bay rallied from a 15-point deficit to make it a 31-29 game with four minutes to play on Peyton Barber's five-yard touchdown catch. The Falcons then tacked on a field goal to make it a five-point game with just over a minute to play but Winston got the visitors back into scoring range with consecutive completions of 18, 18 and 19 yards to DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans and Adam Humphries. With seven seconds left and the ball at Atlanta's 21, the Bucs tried a tricky play in which Winston began to scramble up the middle and then suddenly attempted a lateral to Humphries. The ball ended up on the turf before Evans scooped it up and got a one-hopper off to Jackson, who appeared to have a path to the end zone pylon along the left sideline. However, Jackson couldn't haul it in and time expired on a 34-29 Falcons victory.
In the Week 17 rematch, at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs gave up a 10-point halftime lead and fell behind by 11 in the fourth quarter before once again rallying, this time taking the lead with five minutes to play on a 19-yard Chris Godwin touchdown catch. That was too much time to leave Ryan, however, and he hit Jones on a pair of 16-yard passes to get the ball into field goal range. Matt Bryant won it as time expired with a 37-yarder.
· Buccaneers wide receiver Julio Jones is the all-time leading pass-catcher in Falcons history. Jones, who played for Atlanta from 2011-20 after being drafted sixth overall, caught 848 passes during his tenure with the team for 12,896 yards and 60 touchdowns.
· Keith Armstrong, the Buccaneers' special teams coordinator, filled the same role in Atlanta for more than a decade (2008-19). He was also on the Falcons' coaching staff from 1994-96, coaching safeties and the secondary.
· Wide receiver Russell Gage is in his first season as a Buccaneer after spending his first four seasons in Atlanta. The Falcons drafted Gage out of LSU in the sixth round in 2018, and over the next four years he appeared in 61 games with 21 starts and caught 193 passes for 2,065 yards and nine touchdowns.
· Meanwhile, punter Bradley Pinion is in his first season in Atlanta after playing the previous three in a Buccaneers uniform. Pinion played in 47 games for the Buccaneers, posting a gross punting average of 43.6 yards and also serving as one of the NFL's best kickoff specialists.
· Falcons Secondary Coach Jon Hoke tutored the Buccaneers' defensive backs during the 2016-18 seasons.
· Tampa Bay Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich saw action for both team's in Sunday's matchup during his 10-year playing career. He was with Atlanta in 2007, making two starts, and with the Buccaneers in 2009, starting the first three games of the season.
· Buccaneers safety Keanu Neal started his career in Atlanta as a first-round pick (17th overall) in the 2016 draft out of the University of Florida. Neal played five seasons for the Falcons, making the Pro Bowl in 2017 but missing all but four games in 2018-19 due to injuries. He came to Tampa this season after one year with the Dallas Cowboys.
· Tampa Bay defensive lineman Deadrin Senat is also a former Falcons draft pick, as he was selected out of the University of South Florida in the third round in 2018. Senat played in 23 games over four seasons in Atlanta, 15 of which came in his rookie season, along with his two career starts.
· Buccaneers Cornerbacks Coach Kevin Ross also spent a small portion of his long NFL playing career in Atlanta, joining the Falcons in 1994 after 11 years with the Kansas City Chiefs. Ross played two seasons in Atlanta before finishing his playing career with one year in San Diego and one more back with the Chiefs.
· Keith Tandy, who joined the Buccaneers' coaching staff last year as a defensive/special teams assistant, wrapped up his NFL playing career with one season (2018) in Atlanta after six years on the field for Tampa Bay.
· Danny Breyer, now a run game specialist on Arthur Smith's staff, was on the Buccaneers' coaching staff in 2017 and 2018, first as an analytics assistant and then as a defensive assistant.
SENIOR COACHING STAFFS
· Head Coach Todd Bowles
· Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin
· Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich
· Run Game Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers
· Pass Game Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote
· Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong
· Head Coach Arthur Smith
· Offensive Coordinator Dave Ragone
· Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees
· Special Teams Coordinator Marquice Williams
KEY 2022 ROSTER ADDITIONS
· P Jake Camarda (fourth-round draft pick)
· WR Russell Gage (UFA)
· G Luke Goedeke (second-round draft pick)
· DL Logan Hall (second-round draft pick)
· T Fred Johnson (FA)
· WR Julio Jones (FA)
· TE Ko Kieft (sixth-round draft pick)
· G Shaq Mason (trade–NE)
· CB Zyon McCollum (fifth-round draft pick)
· OLB Carl Nassib (FA)
· S Keanu Neal (UFA)
· TE Cade Otton (fourth-round draft pick)
· TE Kyle Rudolph (FA)
· S Logan Ryan (FA)
· RB Rachaad White (third-round draft pick)
· RB Tyler Allgeier (5th-round draft pick)
· ILB Troy Anderson (2nd-round draft pick)
· WR Dameire Byrd (UFA)
· OLB Lorenzo Carter (UFA)
· WR Frank Darby (FA)
· OLB Arnold Ebiketie (2nd-round draft pick)
· ILB Rashaan Evans (UFA)
· TE Anthony Firkser (UFA)
· CB Mike Ford (UFA)
· CB Casey Hayward (UFA…currently on injured reserve)
· T Germain Ifedi (UFA)
· WR Drake London (1st-round draft pick)
· OLB DeAngelo Malone (3rd-round draft pick)
· QB Marcus Mariota (UFA…currently on injured reserve)
· P Bradley Pinion (FA)
· QB Desmond Ridder (3rd-round draft pick)
· G Elijah Wilkinson (UFA)
ADDITIONAL 2022 CHANGES OF NOTE
· While the Bucs continue to maintain enviable continuity on their coaching staff, there is a new person in the corner office. In March, Bruce Arians stepped down after three years as the head coach and took on a new role as a senior advisor to the general manager. Todd Bowles was promoted from defensive coordinator to take his place. Bowles previously served as the New York Jets' head coach from 2015-18 before rejoining Arians when the latter came on as the Buccaneers' head coach in 2019.
· With Bowles stepping up the Bucs needed a new defensive coordinator and they essentially named two of them. Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers added the title of Run Game Coordinator while Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote switched to inside linebackers and added the title of Pass Game Coordinator. They are in effect co-defensive coordinators. Bob Sanders joined the staff to take over for Foote in the outside linebackers room. Foote made his switch after Inside Linebackers Coach Mike Caldwell landed the defensive coordinator position in Jacksonville under new Head Coach Doug Pederson.
· The Buccaneers had two key players retire after the 2021 season, but only one of them stayed retired. While quarterback Tom Brady eventually elected to return 40 days after announcing he was stepping away from the game, his long-time buddy Rob Gronkowski walked away for good, leading to big changes in the Bucs' tight end room. While veteran Cam Brate returned, O.J. Howard left in free agency and the Buccaneers subsequently drafted Cade Otton and Ko Kieft and signed veteran Kyle Rudolph.
· Tampa Bay's defense also saw the departure of two front-seven stalwarts from the extremely successful 2020-21 seasons, as neither DL Ndamukong Suh nor OLB Jason Pierre-Paul was re-signed. The team signed veteran standout Akiem Hicks and drafted Houston's Logan Hall 33rd overall to address depth up front and are relying on 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to step up on the edge.
· The Falcons brought an era to an end on March 21 when they traded long-time starting quarterback Matt Ryan to Indianapolis for a third-round pick in 2022 draft. The third-overall pick in the 2008 draft, Ryan started 222 of a possible 225 games for Atlanta over the next 14 seasons, earning four Pro Bowl selections along the way. He was the NFL MVP in 2016, the same season he led the Falcons to Super Bowl LI. Ryan felt that his time in Atlanta had come to an end when the Falcons were one of several times that tried to trade for former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. To fill their new vacancy under center the Falcons signed former second-overall pick Marcus Mariota – on the same day they traded Ryan – to start and drafted Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder in the third round as a developmental option. Mariota started the first 13 games of the year before the Falcons turned to Ridder, with Mariota ending up on injured reserve.
· Atlanta let former Wide Receivers Coach Dave Brock go after the 2021 season and to fill that spot they shifted Passing Game Specialist T.J. Yates over to the receiver room. The team also added Mario Jeberaeel to the staff as an assistant offensive line coach, replacing Chandler Henley, who left for a spot on the Miami Dolphins' staff. Jeberaeel had come to team in 2021 as a diversity coaching intern. Other additions to the coaching staff included Steve Jackson (senior offensive assistant), Shawn Flaherty (football analyst), Nick Edwards (offensive assistant) and Steven King (diversity coaching intern).
· As recently as 2020 the Falcons' receiving corps was headlined by Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. However, after trading Jones to the Titans in the 2021 offseason, the Falcons saw Ridley step away from the team for much of last season to focus on his mental well-being. Ridley then drew a suspension for the entire 2022 season for betting on NFL games. Atlanta's receiving corps is now led by rookie Drake London, the eighth-overall pick in this year's draft.
· The Falcons started the season without one of their defensive centerpieces. Inside linebacker Deion Jones, who has started 83 games for the team, including 48 of a possible 49 over the past three seasons, began the campaign on injured reserve after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. He was later traded to the Cleveland Browns on October 10. With fellow off-ball linebacker Foyesade Oluokun moving on to Jacksonville in free agency, the Falcons have a new look in the middle of their defense with offseason acquisitions Rashaan Evans and Lorenzo Carter.
Damar on Their Minds – The NFL postponed Monday night's Buffalo-Cincinnati game after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest after making a tackle and had to be resuscitated by emergency medical personnel. Hamlin remains in critical condition and the NFL has not yet decided when or if to resume the game. However, the NFL has announced that there will be no changes to the Week 18 schedule, which means football will resume in just a few days. While the football world has focused on Hamlin's health in the aftermath of his terrifying injury, players across the league will eventually go back to work, and to the playing field. How Hamlin's life-threatening incident will affect the mental state of a player likely varies from man to man, but Buccaneers' defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said it is actually harder on the players' loved ones. "It's a dangerous game," said Hicks. "It's a very violent game. It's rough. You hate to see a guy go down like that. I think one of the things that touched me the most was seeing guys on the field having to witness their teammate being down like that. That's a tough feeling. … You know who it shakes up? Our families. Our families call us and they want to know if we're okay. They have those feelings: That could be my son or that could be my brother. I think that's the people that it shakes up, and eventually it gets to you."
Really, Who's Going to Play? – The Buccaneers are expected to start all of their regulars, with the possible exception of some injured players, but will they take some of them out before the game is over? Todd Bowles hinted at a possible answer on Wednesday when he said second-year quarterback Kyle Trask, who has yet to play in a regular-season game, has a good chance to be active on Sunday. Bowles said Tom Brady would start, and if Brady comes out of the game the team would then turn to Blaine Gabbert. Bowles also said that if Gabbert was then taken out, Trask would get into the game. When Brady is in the game, the Buccaneers will likely keep in most of their other starters, as well, particularly on the offensive line, and simply by sheer depth numbers several of those linemen will have to play the entire contest. Could the Buccaneers take a look at some players who have been a bit buried on the depth chart this season, such as third-year running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, second-year inside linebacker K.J. Britt, wide receivers Scotty Miller and Deven Thompkins, and/or rookie defensive lineman Logan Hall? Bowles wants to play his starters because he says it's one more opportunity to work on some aspects of the team's performance before they have to lay it all on the line in the playoffs. However, he may at some point balance that against the risk of injury and eventually play it safe with some of the team's core performers. Either way, there won't be any meaningless snaps. "I don't think anything is meaningless," said Brady. "And everything is in preparation for what's ahead…I love trying to get better. We're 8-8. We don't have all our problems solved. I mean, I look at it like, man, we gotta use every opportunity, every day of practice to get better."
Stop the Run, Job Number One – The Buccaneers headed into their Week 17 matchup against the Panthers with a singular focus on stopping a Carolina rushing attack that had racked up 320 yards the previous week. Tampa Bay's defense did, in fact, slow the Panthers' backs down, allowing only 74 yards on 22 carries, but the formula didn't seem to be working for about three quarters. Thanks to the heroics of Tom Brady and Mike Evans, however, the Bucs were able to rally for the victory and can rest easy knowing their plan worked in the end. Bowles's crew is likely to take a similar approach to a Falcons team that is pounding its way to 159 rushing yards a game but is rolling with a rookie quarterback who has yet to throw a touchdown (or an interception, to be fair) and has averaged 161.3 passing yards in his first three starts. The Buccaneers would like to make third-round pick Desmond Ridder beat them, but stopping the run and putting the game on his shoulders won't be easy. Former undrafted rookie Caleb Huntley (366 yards, 4.6 yards per carry) is on injured reserve but the Falcons still have a powerful duo in the backfield of veteran Cordarrelle Patterson and rookie fifth-rounder Tyler Allgeier, both of whom are averaging at least 4.8 yards per carry. Allgeier has taken on the lead role of late, and the powerfully-built runner leads the team with 900 rushing yards. Patterson is one of the NFL's most versatile weapons and he leads the squad with eight touchdowns.
Perfection on the Line for Brady – Tom Brady has an amazingly unblemished record against the Atlanta Falcons, having won all 11 of his starts against them, including Super Bowl LI. Maintaining that perfect record has been a more difficult task since he joined the Buccaneers and moved into the NFC South because he now has to put it on the line twice a year. So far, so good, as Tampa Bay swept its nearby division foe in both 2020 and 2021 and can do so again with a victory on Sunday. Brady remains undefeated against five teams (including the Buccaneers), but Atlanta is the only one of those five teams he's played at least 10 times. He has been downright masterful when facing the Falcons, compiling a 114.1 passer rating in regular-season meetings, his highest against foe. (In the Super Bowl he threw for 466 yards and two touchdowns.) He has a 27-3 TD-INT ratio against the Falcons and has averaged 322.6 passing yards per game in those contests, his highest mark against any team. As noted above, Brady may not get an opportunity to finish what he started – and, notably, 13 of his 24 touchdown passes this season have come in the fourth quarter – but he can at least put the Buccaneers in a good position to finish off another season sweep.
Offensive Momentum – Brady and the Buccaneers will have a better chance of staying undefeated against the Falcons since 2020 if he can direct the type of explosive passing attack that was on display last Sunday against Carolina, and for most of the previous two campaigns. The Buccaneers led the NFL in passing yards and scoring over the 2020-21 seasons combined but have seen their per-game scoring average drop by nearly two touchdowns in 2022. Against the Panthers, Brady threw for a season-high 423 yards and tossed three touchdowns, all of them on deep go routes to Mike Evans. Prior to that game, Brady had one touchdown pass of 30 or more yards in 2022; he and Evans hooked up for 63, 57 and 30 yard TDs in Week 17. The Buccaneers clinched the division in the process and will head back to the playoffs for a third straight year, but they will finish the regular-season at either 9-8 or 8-9 and, as of yet, have not strung together three straight wins in 2022. They'll have to do that plus one more once the postseason begins if they want to achieve their ultimate goal. A stingy defense and the ever-present possibility of a dramatic Brady-led comeback will help, but the Bucs probably need to be more consistently productive on offense if they want to survive long in the playoffs. Sunday's game in Atlanta won't matter in the standings, but it will give the Bucs a chance to build on the momentum they started in Week 17.
1. Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette vs. Falcons LB Rashaan Evans
The Buccaneers have the NFL's 32nd-ranked rushing attack and the Falcons are 24th in the league in stopping the run, so this isn't where we'll find strength-on-strength on Sunday in Atlanta. But Leonard Fournette has topped 100 yards from scrimmage four times this season and just two weeks ago in Arizona combined 72 rushing yards with 90 receiving yards. He and rookie Rachaad White are sharing the backfield snaps almost equally, but the Buccaneers have stated they will ride the hot hand if one emerges on any particular Sunday, and that's always a possibility with 'Late-Season Lenny.' Fournette leads the Buccaneers with 1,187 yards from scrimmage and is a threat in the passing game every week, as evidenced by his 72 receptions, which rank third in the NFL among running backs. Rashaan Evans, a former first-round pick by the Tennessee Titans, is in his first year with the Falcons and is the number-one thumper in the middle of their defense. His 154 tackles lead the team and rank fifth in the NFL, and 98 of those have come on running plays. He's quick to the find the ballcarrier and is a rugged tackler, and he's a physical presence in the box. Evans is also a good blitzer who has 2.0 sacks, so Fournette will have to be aware of him in pass protection. Evans has not been considered one of the league's better coverage linebackers during his career, so Fournette could get some favorable matchups out of the backfield.
2. Falcons T Jake Matthews vs. Buccaneers OLB Anthony Nelson
Guard Chris Lindstrom is the Falcons' lone Pro Bowl selection this season, but left tackle Jake Matthews has been to a Pro Bowl of his own and has been the anchor of Atlanta's line since he was selected sixth overall in the 2014 draft. The latest in an incredible lineage of NFL players from the Matthews family, Jake has missed only one start in his nine-year career, that during his rookie campaign, and has played in 144 games overall. Pro Football Focus credits him with allowing only four sacks this season. Anthony Nelson has stepped up in a very big way for the Buccaneers in 2022, and especially of late. The fourth-year edge rusher moved into the starting lineup after Shaquil Barrett suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in Week Eight, and due to other injuries at the position he has played every single defensive snap over the Bucs' last three games. He has been extremely productive in that extra playing time, with 2.5 sacks and a pair of game-changing forced fumbles. Nelson has been an every-down hustler throughout his four NFL seasons but in his newfound starting role he has shown improved burst around the edge and excellent closing speed. He generally rushes off the quarterback's blind side and thus will largely be Matthews' responsibility.
3. Buccaneers WR Russell Gage vs. Falcons CB A.J. Terrell
The last time the Buccaneers and Falcons met in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Gage hauled in 11 passes on 12 targets for 130 yards. At the time, he was playing for Atlanta, but he returns to his original NFL home this weekend as a member of the Buccaneers. Though injuries slowed him down in the offseason and through a good portion of the regular season, Gage has rounded into form for the stretch run and is seeing a lot of action as the third receiver along with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. In his last three outings, Gage has caught 16 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns. While he has seen some action in the slot, nearly two-thirds of his work has come on the outside when Godwin has moved into the slot. Gage hasn't run a route longer than 21 yards downfield this season but he has been a critical factor on third and fourth downs, helping to extend drives with very timely catches. With Evans and Godwin sure to draw a lot of attention, Gage should see plenty of single coverage. However, some of that coverage will be provided by third-year player A.J. Terrell, who already ranks among the league's best cornerbacks. According to Next Gen Stats, Terrell finished last season with the second-lowest EPA allowed when targeted (-29.4) among all NFL players. He hasn't quite met that same level of success in 2022 but remains a long and rangy corner with excellent footwork and press-man coverage ability.
4. Falcons G Chris Lindstrom vs. Buccaneers DL Akiem Hicks
As noted above, Lindstrom, the 14th-overall pick in the 2019 draft, is headed to his first Pro Bowl as the Falcons' lone representative. He has been credited with allowing only 2.0 sacks this year and has an overall grade of 95.0 on Pro Football Focus, by far the best of any guard in the NFL. He stands up well against power rushers but is also agile enough to make clean blocks on the move. Lindstrom's own power in the ground game is a big reason why Atlanta is averaging a robust 159.0 rushing yards per contest. Lindstrom will see a lot of down lineman Akiem Hicks, who is coming off a disruptive performance in the Buccaneers' Week 17 win over Carolina. Hicks knocked down two passes at the line, and while he was not credited with a sack or a QB hit against the Panthers he spent a lot of time in the backfield. The former Bears Pro Bowler is one of the Buccaneers' strongest players and he forms a formidable wall when paired with the equally massive Vita Vea. With Vea working his way back from a calf injury, Hicks has been the Buccaneers' most active interior lineman in terms of defensive snaps played. He and Lindstrom should have a three-hour battle on Sunday.
DNP: Did not participate in practice
LP: Limited participation in practice
FP: Full participation in practice
NL: Not listed
· QB Tom Brady (rest) – WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· CB Carlton Davis (shoulder) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
· ILB Lavonte David (rest) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
· CB Jamel Dean (toe) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
· S Mike Edwards (hamstring/hip) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
· DL Akiem Hicks (rest) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
· WR Julio Jones (knee/illness) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
· OLB Carl Nassib (pectoral) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Out.
· S Logan Ryan (knee) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
· T Donovan Smith (foot) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
· NT Vita Vea (calf) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
· T Tristan Wirfs (ankle) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· TE Feleipe Franks (concussion) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· OL Elijah Wilkinson (calf) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
· RB Avery Williams (foot) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
Domed stadium. External weather: Cloudy, high of 50, low of 37, 24% chance of rain, 81% humidity, winds out of the NNW at 5-10 mph.
Head referee: Land Clark (fifth season, third as referee)
· Favorite: Falcons (-3.0)
· Over/Under: 40.5
INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 112
Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans/RB Leonard Fournette, 6
Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 4,610
Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 90.4
Rushing Yards: RB Leonard Fournette, 668
Receptions: WR Chris Godwin, 98
Receiving Yards: WR Mike Evans, 1,124
Interceptions: CB Jamel Dean/Mike Edwards/Sean Murphy-Bunting, 2
Sacks: DL Vita Vea, 6.5
Tackles: ILB Devin White, 122
Points Scored: K Younghoe Koo, 117
Touchdowns: RB Cordarrelle Patterson, 8
Passing Yards: QB Marcus Mariota*, 2,219
Passer Rating: QB Marcus Mariota*, 88.2
Rushing Yards: RB Tyler Allgeier, 900
Receptions: WR Drake London, 66
Receiving Yards: WR Drake London, 746
Interceptions: S Richie Grant/S Jaylinn Hawkins/LB Mykal Walker, 2
Sacks: DL Grady Jarrett, 6.0
Tackles: LB Rashaan Evans, 154
(* On injured reserve.)
TEAM STAT RANKINGS
Scoring Offense: 24th (18.5 ppg)
Total Offense: 11th (354.5 ypg)
Passing Offense: 2nd (278.1 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 32nd (76.4 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: t-9th (20.9)
Third-Down Pct.: 22nd (36.9%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 1st (3.07%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 25th (51.1%)
Scoring Defense: 8th (20.5 ppg)
Total Defense: 8th (320.7 ypg)
Passing Defense: 9th (203.3 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 15th (117.4 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: 4th (18.3)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 6th (36.7%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 10th (7.96%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 25th (61.4%)
Turnover Margin: t-20th (-2)
Scoring Offense: t-19th (20.9 ppg)
Total Offense: 25th (314.7 ypg)
Passing Offense: 31st (155.7 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 3rd (159.0 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: 22nd (19.3)
Third-Down Pct.: 10th (42.0%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 26th (9.09%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 17th (54.0%)
Scoring Defense: 23rd (23.1 ppg)
Total Defense: 29th (370.9 ypg)
Passing Defense: 26th (237.9 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 24th (133.0 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: t-26th (21.2)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 31st (45.9%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 32nd (3.98%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 13th (54.4%)
Turnover Margin: 25th (-4)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
· Quarterback Tom Brady set the NFL single-season record for completions last year at 485. He has another 476 completions this season, which means he only needs nine more to break the record once again. He also needs nine pass attempts to break that single-season record. He's at 719 so far this season and the record is 727, by Matthew Stafford in 2012.
· Brady can also move up one spot on the Tampa Bay's franchise list for most passing yards. He has 14,559 yards in just under three seasons as a Buccaneer and needs 262 more to overtake Vinny Testaverde (14,820) for second place.
· Both tight end Cameron Brate and wide receiver Chris Godwin have 33 career touchdowns. With one more, either one or both will tie Ring of Honor member Jimmie Giles for fourth place in franchise history in overall touchdowns. All 33 of Brate's touchdowns are receptions (Godwin has one rushing touchdown), meaning he is also one behind Giles for second place on the team's all-time list in that category.
· Godwin's nine receptions in Week 17 gave him 98 on the season, tying his own 2021 mark for the second most in franchise history. He needs two more to become the second Buccaneer ever to reach 100 catches in a season and nine more to surpass Keyshawn Johnson's 2001 team record of 106.
· Kicker Ryan Succop has made 30 field goals in 2022. He needs three more to surpass the Bucs' single-season record of 32, which is shared by Matt Bryant (2008) and Martin Gramatica (2002).
· Head Coach Todd Bowles on how second-year quarterback Kyle Trask has handled being inactive every week: "Since he's been here, every time I look out my window, he's out there working on his own. He has the greatest resolve and toughness and inner strength almost than any person I've seen. A young guy coming out – he prepares every day. When his time comes, he's going to be ready because I see him working at it every day. He has inner toughness, he has inner strength, and he has the drive and the will to win. If you put that together, given the opportunity, I think he's going to take advantage of it."
· Cornerback Carlton Davis on the life-threatening injury suffered by Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin on Monday night: "That was just heartbreaking. One of our previous teammates Jordan Whitehead was actually his roommate in college and he used to tell me about [Hamlin] because he was younger than him and he was just telling me like, 'Watch out for him.' And it's just so heartbreaking to see that play, how it seemed like it was just a normal play, and it was just a detrimental play to him. It's just a sad thing to see for the sport. My heart and prayers really go out to him. Last night I couldn't sleep – just kind of thinking about how many times I've been in that position and how I would feel if that happened to one of my teammates. Like I couldn't fathom finishing that game. At that point, it's just about life, it's about getting home to your families. It's about coming out alive, man. It's sad to see and I'm really praying for him – really hoping he pulls through."
· Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks on stats saying it's more advantageous for teams to play starters instead of resting them before the playoffs: "They've got stats on everything now, man. You just go out there and do your best on Sunday – I think that's a good way to hold yourself and take care of business during the season. Every week, be prepared to play regardless of what the stats are."
· Tackle Tristan Wirfs on becoming more of a team leader in his third season: "Yeah, I've said a couple things sometimes, just things I've noticed when I was hurt. I've just done my best to be more of a leader this year. I did that a lot during camp and just tried to fill that role and step into those shoes."
· Bowles on what has caused the Buccaneers' increase in takeaways in recent games: "I wish I could give you the answer to that – I would have tried to make it happen earlier. Like you said, they come in bunches. We work at it, we swipe at the ball, we try and get picks and everything else. We've had three the last two games and it resulted in wins so we're just going to try to keep it up. No rhyme or reason."