The 5-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will close out their 2018 season on Sunday with a visit from the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons to Raymond James Stadium. The game will also conclude the Buccaneers' intra-division schedule and give the team a chance to earn a split against all three NFC South foes for the first time since 2008. Neither team can make the playoffs but both appear to be fighting hard to the end. Atlanta arrives with a two-game winning streak in hand; the Bucs have lost their last three but all against potential playoff teams and all in close battles.
The Falcons, like the Buccaneers, have been more effective on offense this season, with a defense that was decimated by injuries early on. Quarterback Matt Ryan is putting up numbers nearly as impressive as those he mustered in his 2016 MVP season, and wide receiver Julio Jones leads the league in receiving yards. Also like the Buccaneers, the Falcons' rushing attack has been up and down but the passing game is loaded with viable weapons. In Atlanta's case, that includes Mohamed Sanu, rookie Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper. All have at least 593 yards and four touchdowns.
The Falcons struggled on defense for a good portion of the season without such cornerstone players as safety Keanu Neal, linebacker Deion Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Jarrett's absence wasn't as long as the others and Jones has recently returned from injured reserve but the Falcons have had to adjust in the secondary without Neal and fellow safety Ricardo Allen. One player who has stepped up in that vacuum is second-year safety Damontae Kazee, who is tied for third in the NFL with six interceptions. The Falcons also boast four different pass-rushers with at least five sacks, and midseason pickup Bruce Irvin has added 3.5. (For more on the Falcons' strengths and weaknesses, read this week's Scouting Report.)
The Falcons have won the last four meetings in the series with Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers will try to end that run and finish the season on a high note Sunday. Here are five specific issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Falcons contest:
1. Will we see one more shootout before the 2018 season comes to a close?
Tampa Bay opened its 2018 season with a wild 48-40 win at New Orleans that stands as the highest-scoring game ever in Week One. A number of shootouts followed, such as a 30-27 Monday Night loss to Pittsburgh and a 37-34 finish at Cincinnati. The first meeting between the Bucs and Falcons, in Week Six, included 63 points and 927 yards of offense. The Bucs had the yardage edge, with 510, but the Falcons won the more important battle on the scoreboard.
The Buccaneers still have the league's top-ranked passing attack and would become just the sixth team ever to record more than 5,000 net passing yards if they get 227 on Sunday against the Falcons. Still, things have calmed down a bit, in terms of scoring, in Tampa Bay games during the second half of the season. Tampa Bay hasn't scored or allowed 30-plus points in any of the last five games, which had previously been a regular occurrence.
In fact, scoring has dipped somewhat in December across the league. In September, teams were scoring an average of 24.03 points per game. That ticked up just a bit in October to 24.19 points per game, then went back to 24.03 points per game in November. In December, that number has fallen to 21.43 points per team per game. Still, it's possible that the Bucs and Falcons will call back to the first half of the season and combine for another very high-scoring game.
The Falcons are the league's 11th-highest scoring team and the Buccaneers are two spots behind that. The Buccaneers are third in total yards and first in passing yards, as noted above, and they are fourth in converting third downs. The Falcons are eighth, fifth and sixth in those same three categories. The skew between the Bucs yardage and point rankings can largely be blamed on missed opportunities. The team has been efficient in the red zone in some games but has struggled in others such as the 16-3 loss to Washington in which it topped 500 yards but never found the red zone. If the Bucs have a strong day inside the 20 against the Falcons, they could end the season on a high note, offensively.
"It’s been frustrating at times," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "You see a lot of good things. Some guys executing at a very high level. Then you’ve seen some times where it’s been frustrating in the red zone with some of the turnovers. Not even beyond the red zone but getting across the 50-yard line. We’ve been really good in a lot of areas and you can’t expect every week to just have it be the same – you play good people and it’s tough to play against the best in the world. Like I said, there’s been a lot of really good things, but some other things that we’ll look back on and say, 'Boy, we were really good, but we had a chance to be really special.'"
The Buccaneers and Falcons also both rank in the bottom eight in points allowed, Atlanta 25th at 26.1 per game and Tampa Bay 30th at 28.7 per game. Even though the Bucs' defense has shown noticeable improvement down the stretch, those season-long figures indicate that Jameis Winston, Matt Ryan and their respective offenses will have a chance to put up big numbers.
"The one thing that’s remained pretty constant [for the Falcons] is their passing game," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Their passing game with Matt, that wide receiver group and then the tight end, Hooper, has had a good season for them. [Tevin] Coleman as a runner has done a good job for them."
In addition, each team's quarterback enjoys playing against this particular opponent. Matt Ryan has averaged 253.8 passing yards per game in 21 outings against the Buccaneers, with a passer rating of 97.3. Winston has fewer games against Atlanta – six – but even better averages, with 273.3 yards per game and a 111.1 passer rating, built on a 16-4 TD-INT ratio.
2. With the playoffs out of the picture for both of these teams, what are the implications of a win or a loss?
Indeed, neither the Buccaneers nor the Falcons can make the playoffs or even reach a .500 mark for the season. This final game will have some minor effects on the division standings and the order in the 2019 NFL Draft, but those things are of little significance to the players who will take the field on Sunday.
"Because in pro sports you’re getting paid to give your best and give your team the best chance to win," said Koetter as to why he expects the same effort level as always from both teams. "Thirty percent of your team’s going to turn over every year. You’ve got guys – players and coaches – all across the board. Other than preseason games, I’ve never been in a game in my life when you went out there not trying to win."
That said, if you are interested in what a win or a loss would do to the standings and the draft, it's fairly straight forward. The Carolina Panthers, who are also 6-9, play at New Orleans on Sunday. If the Panthers win, they would finish second in the division and the Falcons would be third no matter who won at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. It would take several tiebreakers to separate the Bucs and Falcons if they're both 6-10, but Atlanta would eventually take it with a slightly better record in conference games.
If the Panthers lose to the Saints and the Buccaneers win, that would create a three-way tie in the division, which brings some different tiebreaker situations into play. In that scenario, the Panthers would be eliminated from the three-way tie first based on head-to-head records. Thanks to a sweep of the Panthers this year, Atlanta would be 3-1, the Bucs would be 2-2 and the Panthers would be 1-3. After that the same tiebreaker between the Falcons and Bucs noted above would kick in, meaning Atlanta would be second and the Bucs would be third.
How that shakes out will have a minor effect on the Buccaneers' schedule next year. There are two games determined by final standings, with teams pitted against teams that finish in the same spot in their respective division standings. The Buccaneers will have a home game against whichever NFC East team occupies the same spot in the standings and a road game with the NFC North team that fits the same criteria. Tampa Bay will get Washington at home if it finishes third in the NFC South and the New York Giants if it finishes fourth. The Bucs' standings-dependent road game will be at Green Bay if they are in third and Detroit if they are in fourth.
As for the draft, there's still a decent amount of variance as to where the Buccaneers will pick based on a number of results in Week 17. Tampa Bay is currently in the sixth spot, second in a group of four teams that are 5-10. Within each tied group of teams, the one and only tiebreaker used in determining draft order is strength of schedule. The SOS numbers with several of the teams around the Buccaneers – such as the Giants and Bills – are close enough that the order could change based on a lot of different wins and losses around the league.
There are also four 6-9 teams, none of whom play each other. None of the 5-10 teams play each other, either. That means it's possible that Tampa Bay could behind any or all of the current 5-10 teams and/or tied with any or all of the 6-9 teams. In addition, there are three 4-11 teams, which could catch the Buccaneers in the standings if they win and Tampa Bay loses, and none of them play each other. The Bucs will likely be picking somewhere in the 5-10 range next year, but there is still a lot to be determined on Sunday.
3. How long will Mike Evans have to wait to break the team's receiving yardage record?
Not long, one would suspect.
Evans enters the season finale with 1,418 receiving yards, good for third in the NFL. Mark Carrier set the current single-season franchise at 1,422 yards back in 1989, so Evans only needs five more yards to break it. Evans has caught 80 passes this season, an average of 5.3 per game, and he's gained a superb 17.7 yards per catch.
Of those 80 receptions Evans has had this year, only two have gained fewer than five yards, and both of those went for four. He has also had at least one reception in 60 consecutive games. Based on that, it would be a surprise if Evans doesn't catch at least one pass on Sunday, and it would be a further surprise if that one catch failed to gain at least five yards. The single-season yardage record, which has always seemed like an inevitability for Evans, is there for the taking. He already owns the Bucs' single-season mark for touchdown receptions and the career record in both categories.
Koetter acknowledged on Thursday that he knows how close to the record Evans is, but given the circumstances he shouldn't have to do anything different with his play-calling to help the fifth-year wideout get there.
"It depends on what it is and how [far] away it is," said Koetter of the idea of making sure a player has a chance to break a record. "I think there’s decent chance we can get this one."
4. Can rising defensive tackle Vita Vea end his rookie season on a high note?
Rookie Vita Vea, the Buccaneers' first-round pick in the 2018 draft, has 21 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss and three quarterback hits over his last five games. He got his third career sack last Sunday in Dallas and had another one that was wiped away by a penalty when his hand inadvertently raked across Dak Prescott's helmet.
The road-grading defensive tackle got off to a slow start in his debut campaign thanks to a calf injury early in training camp that cost him nearly two months. He struggled when he first got on the field, too, particularly in terms of shedding blocks. While his raw power has been evident from the beginning, it is now beginning to produce results and suggest what Vea is capable of in the long run.
"Vita's just improved across the board as he's really gotten into his groove of playing," said Koetter. "I just think he's gained confidence. I'd say the last five weeks, he's improved every week. He's kind of got things where he understands, he knows what to expect now. He's cutting it loose, he's not playing tentative, he's not on the ground as much. Most of his pass-rush comes with power, although he is quicker than he might be thought of for a guy his size. When he's got good rushers around him, like he does now, and he's singled up – most people are going to single the nose [tackle] and slide to the three[-technique tackle] – that's going to give him a consistent one-on-one."
Veteran defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who leads the Buccaneers with 11.5 sacks, can see quite a bit of promise in Vea's rookie efforts.
"Right now, he’s learning, learning and he’s coming along, so I can only imagine into next year," said Pierre-Paul. "I had a talk with him already. I said, 'Next year when you come in here, they’re going to be expecting big things from you and I’m going to be expecting big things from you because what I see you doing now. Man, you’re a big guy and you’re just tossing people.'"
With Pierre-Paul playing through a litany of injuries and Carl Nassib doubtful to play on Sunday, the Buccaneers may not have as much pressure coming of the edges as they have had much of the season. They may need that pressure to come up the middle from Vea and veteran Gerald McCoy. If Vea can make that happen it would put an exclamation point on what has been a very good stretch run for the rookie.
5. Could Ryan Griffin get his first chance to play in a regular-season game?
Ryan Griffin is finishing up his fourth season with the Buccaneers, and his fourth year primarily in the role of third quarterback. While he was active on game days earlier this year when Jameis Winston was suspended and for three games last season when Winston was out with a shoulder injury, Griffin still hasn't played in a regular-season game.
Last week, Koetter chose to make Griffin the second active quarterback behind Winston, instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick, for the game in Dallas. That game remained close throughout and Koetter never chose to pull Winston to give Griffin the shot he has long wanted the inexperienced passer to have. If Griffin is active again in Week 17, as expected, that will be another opportunity for his regular-season debut. However, there is no guarantee of that, particularly if this proves to be another close game. Koetter made that clear on Friday.
"There’s no secret at all," he said. "[W]e’re playing to win. It’s like any other game. The [number] two quarterback would play in the situation he would play in any other game."