The Atlanta Falcons won't be going to the playoffs under interim Head Coach Raheem Morris, but they won't be standing aside to let their long-time rival get to the postseason either.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the road for the first time in over a month in Week 15, the destination being Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Buccaneers helped their playoff chances significantly in Week 14 with a 26-14 win over Minnesota but there is still a lot of work to do before their first postseason berth since 2007 is secured. And a lot of that work will come against their long-time rivals in Georgia.
Tampa Bay and Atlanta face off twice in the final three weeks of the 2020 season, with the rematch coming at Raymond James Stadium in the regular-season capper. The Buccaneers now know that two wins in those three weeks will clinch that playoff spot, and the Falcons surely know that two wins for them could very possibly make them spoilers. That's plenty of motivation on both sides.
The Falcons have been under Morris's direction since Week Six, after former Head Coach Dan Quinn was dismissed. Atlanta was 0-5 at the time but has gone 4-4 with the former Buccaneers head coach at the helm, including a 43-6 thrashing of Las Vegas three weeks ago followed by very close losses to the Saints and Chargers. Atlanta has an impressive recent history of finishing seasons strong, winning their last four games last year, their last three in 2018, three of their last four in 2017 and their last four in 2016. From 2017-19, those runs included a win over Tampa Bay.
View historical photos from previous Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchups.
Though they haven't played each other in nearly a calendar year, the Buccaneers will recognize Atlanta's core on both sides of the ball. Former MVP Matt Ryan continues to lead a potent passing attack centered around Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones, though the latter has been dealing with a hamstring injury all season. The defense still features the disruptive Grady Jarrett up front, the speedy Deion Jones in the middle and the hard-hitting Keanu Neal at the back. The newcomers in 2020 are mostly one-for-one replacements for departed Falcon mainstays: Todd Gurley for Devonta Freeman; Hayden Hurst for Austin Hooper; Dante Fowler for Vic Beasley; A.J. Terrell for Desmond Trufant.
Ryan is throwing for nearly 270 yards per game in 2020, and with Jones limited at times this season by a hamstring injury, 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley has emerged as a full-fledged receiving star. The Falcons have a varied array of pass-catching weapons with those two receivers plus, Gurley, Hurst, third wideout Russell Gage and running backs Brian Hill and Ito Smith. Gurley was effective early in the season with 375 rushing yards and 4.7 yards per carry through the first five games, but his numbers have dwindled significantly in the season's second half and the Falcons' rushing attack is 25th in the league.
Atlanta's defense hasn't gotten the desired results for the past three seasons and ranks 28th in the NFL this year, giving up 390.6 yards per game, including 281.8 per game through the air (30th). The Falcons haven't generated much of a pass rush and have no players with more than 3.5 sacks. That sack leader, however, is linebacker Deion Jones, who has done a little bit of everything in one of his best seasons yet, combining 84 tackles with those 3.5 sacks plus eight tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, two interceptions, six passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His speed and range make him the Falcons' most impactful defender.
Both teams will be monitoring a key offensive player during the week leading up to Sunday's game. Jones missed the Falcons last game with that hamstring injury and will reportedly be considered a week-to-week consideration the rest of the way. Jones has an incredible history against the Buccaneers, averaging 115.1 receiving yards per game in the series, with 11 touchdowns in 16 outings. Meanwhile, Buccaneers leading rusher Ronald Jones fractured a pinkie finger in last week's game and has since had surgery to insert pins in the digit. Chris Godwin incurred a similar injury earlier in the season and missed one game. And, of course, Tampa Bay won't know until later in the week who is handling all of their kicking, punting and long-snapping duties on Sunday after Ryan Succop, Bradley Pinion and Zach Triner all landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday. More on that below.
The Buccaneers have played some critical December games against Atlanta since the NFC South was formed in 2002, including ones that helped propel Tampa Bay to division titles in 2002 and 2005 and a Wild Card berth in 2007. On the other hand, Falcon December wins in 2008 and 2010 were very damaging to the Bucs' playoff hopes in those seasons, and an overtime victory in Tampa last season kept the Bucs from getting to .500 in Bruce Arians' first season at the helm. In most of those seasons, Atlanta was also a serious playoff contender. That's not the case this year, but the Falcons are likely to be as motivated as ever to play spoiler and get their head coach a win over his former employers.
GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) at Atlanta Falcons (4-9)
- Sunday, December 20, 1:00 p.m. ET
- Mercedes-Benz Stadium (capacity: 71,000…roughly 9,000 will be in attendance)
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Television: FOX
- TV Broadcast Team: Kevin Burkhardt (play-by-play), Daryl Johnston (analyst), Pam Oliver (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
The Buccaneers play Atlanta twice in the last three weeks of the 2020 season and a sweep of the season series would also guarantee Tampa Bay a playoff spot. However, the Buccaneers have gotten that sweep over the Falcons just once in the last 11 seasons, in 2015.
The Buccaneers came close to taking both halves of the series last year, 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.
The resulting split maintained the three-game lead that Atlanta has recently taken in the series, thanks to a four-game winning streak from 2016-18. In an all-time series in which the lead has frequently changed hands, Atlanta currently owns a 28-25 record, including a 14-11 record in home games.
The Bucs' win in Atlanta in Week 12 last season was one of the team's best all-around efforts of the year, with Winston throwing for 313 yards and three touchdowns, the rushing attack providing 133 yards and the defense forcing two fumbles and mostly keeping Julio Jones in check. The Bucs had a 16-point lead early in the third quarter and never let it get below double digits the rest of the way.
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 Jameis 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.
- Raheem Morris, who is serving as the Falcons' interim head coach after the Week Six dismissal of Dan Quinn. Morris previously held the Buccaneers' head coaching job from 2009-11, the last three of his nine years on Tampa Bay's staff. Before graduating to head coach, Morris had also served as a defensive quality control coach on the 2002 Super Bowl staff, eventually moving on to coach the defensive backs, and he was briefly named the defensive coordinator at the end of the 2009 season before his promotion to the corner office.
- Atlanta's coaching staff contains another former Tampa Bay head coach. Dirk Koetter was at the Buccaneers' helm from 2016-18 after one season as Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator. Koetter now holds that latter title with the Falcons, returning to the same post in Atlanta he had from 2002-14.
- Falcons Tight Ends Coach Ben Steele was in Tampa from 2017-18, coaching the same position for the Bucs under Koetter. Steele joined the Falcons as an offensive assistant in 2019 but was promoted to tight ends coach after the retirement of Mike Mularkey, another former Buccaneer assistant.
- Atlanta President and CEO Rich McKay was associated with the Buccaneers for decades before joining the Falcons in 2004, beginning when his father, the late John McKay, became Tampa Bay's first head coach in 1976. The younger McKay first joined the Bucs' staff as the vice president of football administration in 1992 and began serving as the general manager in 1994. He was a key architect in the construction of the Buccaneers team that won Super Bowl XXXVII.
- Warrick Dunn, who is now a Falcons Limited Partner, split his 12-year playing career as an NFL running back evenly between the Buccaneers and the Falcons. He and Marshall Faulk are the only two players in NFL history to record at least 7,500 yards from scrimmage with two different teams. Dunn joined the Buccaneers as a first-round draft pick in 1997 and stayed with the team for five seasons before signing with the Falcons in 2002. He later returned for a final season in Tampa in 2008.
- Tampa Bay's Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong held the same role with the Falcons for 11 years (2008-18). That was Armstrong's second stint in Atlanta as he also coached the Falcons' safeties from 1994-95 and took over as secondary coach in 1996.
- Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross played 14 seasons in the NFL as a cornerback, including two with the Atlanta Falcons in 1994-95. In addition, Tampa Bay's defensive/special teams assistant Keith Tandy concluded his seven-year playing career as a safety with Atlanta in 2018.
- Atlanta tight end Luke Stocker was a fourth-round draft pick by the Buccaneers in 2011. Stocker's stint with the Buccaneers lasted through November of 2017 and included 80 games played, 56 starts and 52 receptions.
- Buccaneers running back Kenjon Barner played for the Falcons last year, serving as the team's primary kick returner.
- Falcons defensive end Steven Means entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick by the Buccaneers in 2013. He played 10 games for Tampa Bay as a rookie and one more in 2014.
- Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich spent one of his nine seasons as an NFL quarterback in Atlanta, starting three games for the Falcons in 2007.
- Falcons Offensive Assistant Danny Breyer was a defensive assistant for the Buccaneers in 2017 and 2018.
SENIOR COACHING STAFFS
- Head Coach Bruce Arians
- Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin
- Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles
- Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich
- Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong
- Interim Head Coach Raheem Morris
- Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter
- Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich
- Special Teams Coordinator Bernie Parmalee
KEY 2020 ROSTER ADDITIONS
- QB Tom Brady(UFA)
- WR Antonio Brown (FA)
- RB Leonard Fournette (FA)
- TE Rob Gronkowski (T-NE)
- T Joe Haeg (UFA)
- WR Tyler Johnson (5th-round draft pick)
- RB LeSean McCoy (FA)
- DT Steve McLendon (T-NYJ)
- K Ryan Succop (FA)
- RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (3rd-round draft pick)
- S Antoine Winfield, Jr. (2nd-round draft pick)
- T Tristan Wirfs (1st-round draft pick)
- DT Marlon Davidson (2nd-round draft pick)
- CB Darqueze Dennard (FA)
- DE Dante Fowler (UFA)
- RB Todd Gurley (FA)
- TE Hayden Hurst (T-BAL)
- C Matt Hennessy (3rd-round draft pick)
- P Sterling Hofrichter (7th-round draft pick)
- G Justin McCray (FA)
- LB LaRoy Reynolds (UFA)
- CB A.J. Terrell (1st-round draft pick)
- WR Laquon Treadwell (UFA)
- LB Mykal Walker (4th-round draft pick)
ADDITIONAL 2020 CHANGES OF NOTE
- Though it is noted in the "Roster Additions" section above, it's worth further elaborating on the extremely dramatic change the Buccaneers made at the game's most important position. After five seasons, the team moved on from Jameis Winston, the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, and filled the starting quarterback spot with the man many consider the G.O.A.T., former Patriot Tom Brady. Brady brings 20 years of experience and six Super Bowl championship rings to Tampa in one of the most notable free agent signings in NFL history. Brady's move to the Buccaneers also prompted former Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and he was promptly traded to Tampa Bay for a fourth-round draft pick. Another former teammate of Brady's, albeit for just one game, arrived in late October when the Buccaneers signed WR Antonio Brown.
- Tampa Bay debuted new uniforms in Week One in New Orleans. The uniforms are largely inspired by the ones the team wore during its Super Bowl era and overall from 1997 through 2013. Some elements of the uniforms introduced in 2014 remain, such as the sharper, more detailed skull-and-crossed-swords logo and the larger flag on the helmet (though not as large as before). The uniforms debuting in 2020 also include an all-pewter version that is completely unique in team and NFL history and was worn for the first time in Denver in Week Three.
- The Buccaneers have two new additions to their coaching staff in 2020: Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Keith Tandy and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach Cory Bichey. Tandy worked at the high school and college levels in 2019, the latter at his alma mater of West Virginia, but he begins his NFL coaching career with the same team that drafted him in 2012. Tandy spent six seasons in Tampa as a safety and special teams standout before finishing his playing career in Atlanta in 2018. Bichey comes to the Buccaneers from Mississippi State University, where he previously worked under current Buccaneers Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Anthony Piroli.
- The Buccaneers used their franchise tag during the 2020 offseason for the first time in eight years. That tag was employed to retain outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who went from a rotational reserve in Denver to the NFL's 2019 sack leader after signing with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent. Barrett's 19.5 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers broke Warren Sapp's single-season franchise record and made him one of the team's top priorities in the offseason. Barrett and the Bucs were unable to reach agreement on a long-term deal during the 2020 offseason, in part due to the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, so Barrett will play on the tag's one-year contract this fall.
- The Buccaneers lost one of their key defensive players in Week Five when third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea suffered a broken leg and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Vea recorded 2.0 sacks through the first five games and was a key member of the team's league-leading run defense.
- After the team got off to an 0-5 start, the Falcons chose to dismiss Head Coach Dan Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff. Quinn had served as the head coach since 2015 and left with a 43-42 record and two playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl loss at the end of the 2016 season. Dimitroff began his tenure as Atlanta's G.M. in 2008. Raheem Morris has taken over as the Falcons' interim head coach for the remainder of the 2020 season; the general manager position has remained vacant.
- The Falcons unveiled their first new set of uniforms since the 2003 season in May. The primary home uniform features a black jersey over black pants, but there are eight possible combinations the team can employ. There is also an alternate jersey with a gradient from black to red, and all of the jerseys feature a large "ATL" insignia over the player's number.
- The Falcons made a major change at the tight end position. Austin Hooper broke out with 146 catches over the 2018-19 seasons, which earned him a lucrative deal in free agency from Cleveland. Atlanta filled that gap by trading a second-round pick to Baltimore to get former first-round pick Hayden Hurst. Hurst is fourth on the team with 43 catches for 475 yards and three touchdowns.
- Atlanta also moved on from two of their long-term top contributors in running back Devonta Freeman and cornerback Desmond Trufant. The Falcons replaced Freeman, who is now with the Giants, by signing Todd Gurley after he was released by the Rams in a salary cap move. The Falcons used a first-round pick to draft Trufant's replacement in former Clemson standout A.J. Terrell.
- The Falcons decided to cut ties with 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley in November. McKinley had 17.5 sacks in three-and-a-half seasons in Atlanta.
That's the Kicker – As the NFL has navigated its way through the 2020 COVID landscape and managed to get all of its games played so far, the Buccaneers have largely escaped difficult situations created by unavailable players. Until now, potentially. On Tuesday, the Bucs abruptly put all three of their specialists – kicker Ryan Succop, punter Bradley Pinion and long-snapper Zach Triner – on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Because that list is for players who have either tested positive for the virus or have been deemed to be in close contact with someone who has, and because teams are not allowed to say which reason applies to each player, it is still uncertain how long those three will be unavailable. The Buccaneers might get all three back in the mix on the weekend and be able to move forward with business as usual, but they also have to prepare for any or all of them remaining out on Sunday. That means bringing in potential replacements at all three positions and getting them through the 72-hour testing protocol so they are eligible to be signed in time. The Buccaneers also have a kicker on their practice squad, Greg Joseph, who has been with them all season and could be elevated to the game day roster on Sunday if needed. Said Arians: "They're going through the testing stuff, and we're going to have a bunch of kickers, snappers and punters on our team here, possibly, by Friday or Saturday. We'll wait and see how it plays out."
Falcons Playing Spoiler? – We noted this to some degree above, but it's worth repeating that the Buccaneers' path to 10 wins and a guaranteed playoff spot run through the Falcons. After this Sunday's contest in Atlanta the two teams will meet again at Raymond James Stadium in Week 17. That would be a noteworthy scheduling quirk on its own, as this will mark the first time the Buccaneers have ever played the same opponent twice in the last three weeks of the regular season. In this particular case, though, it means the Buccaneers will need to get the best of their long-time rivals at least once and maybe twice to get to the playoffs. Players commonly declare that the most important game is "the next one," but that may be true on several levels this week. If the Buccaneers win they will be only one more victory – or one more loss by whichever team wins this weekend's Chicago-Minnesota showdown – away from a playoff berth. That would be a much more comfortable position from which to enter the final two weeks of the regular season. If the Falcons stop the Bucs in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, however, the picture won't be quite as clear and the Week 17 rematch will start to loom much larger. Any team that has been eliminated from the playoff race, as the 4-9 Falcons have been, can get some extra fuel from the chance to spoil an opponent's chances at the postseason, but in this case the potential spoilers happen to be very heated rivals with the potential spoilees [sic].
Identity Crisis – After the Buccaneers beat the Vikings in Week 14 to stop a two-game losing streak, Arians was asked during the postgame rundown about the Buccaneers' offensive game plan for Minnesota. That seemed to dovetail with repeated questions in previous weeks about the Buccaneers' offensive "identity." Specifically, do they have one, should they have one, and what is it? Arians referred to that conversation and had a strong answer on this occasion: "When asked early this week about our identity, I think we just showed our identity. We can do any damn thing we want to do." Now, Tampa Bay's total output of 305 yards was actually one of its lowest of the season and its 26 points were a few below its usual average, but those numbers are not particularly important to most coaches. Arians saw an offense that, after a slow start, showed it could hit big plays downfield in the passing game, could run effectively, particularly when putting the game away late and could convert on third downs more regularly than it had during the losing streak. He also saw an offensive that got back to excelling in the red zone, where Tampa Bay had dominated during the first half of the season. If "identity" means relying heavily on one facet of the offense in almost every game, Arians isn't particularly interested in having one of those. The Buccaneers still have Super Bowl aspirations and to be true contenders they're going to need to unlock all of their potentially dangerous weapons – from Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Scotty Miller to Rob Gronkowski and Cam Brate to Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy.
Big-Play Receivers – In 2019, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans formed the most prolific wide receiver duo in the NFL, ranking second and fourth, respectively, in yards per game and combining for 17 touchdowns despite both missing several games at the end of the season. But the Atlanta pairing of long-time star Julio Jones and rising youngster Calvin Ridley wasn't far behind. Godwin and Evans combined for 2,490 yards and 17 touchdowns while Jones and Ridley produced a total of 2,260 yards and 13 touchdowns. In 2020, injuries and an offensive with a lot of mouths to feed have suppressed the counting numbers for the Bucs' top receivers and Jones has missed four games and been limited in others by a hamstring injury that may or may not keep him out of Sunday's contest. Ridley, meanwhile, has blossomed into a star in his own right. If all four are on the field this weekend, it will be one of the biggest collection of receiving stars in the NFL and the duo that gets the most done will probably be on the winning side at the end. Evans is also on the verge of several records and notable achievements (see the What to Watch For section below) and Jones needs to be on the field and at full strength to make a run at his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard receiving. Ridley ranks eighth in the NFL in receiving yards and has an outside shot to jump into the top five by season's end, which would further cement his future as a player the Falcons will want to build around going forward.
Road Ready – The Buccaneers will get on a plane Saturday for the first time in 34 days, since a Week 10 win in Charlotte over the Carolina Panthers. Since then, they have played three straight home games sandwiched around a bye week. As they seek two or three wins to secure that playoff spot, they will have to do two-thirds of it away from home, following the Atlanta trip with a road game in Detroit in Week 16. Fortunately, Tampa Bay has proved quite capable of winning away from their home field this season; in fact, their 4-2 mark on the road is slightly better than their 4-3 home record. Two of Tampa Bay's most impressive wins, particularly in terms of offensive output, were away games – the 45-20 drubbing of the Raiders in Week Seven and the 46-23 downing of Carolina in that most recent road trip. If the Buccaneers manage to beat both Atlanta and Detroit in the next two weeks, they will match their all-time best road record at 6-2. That happens to be the same mark the Super Bowl champion 2020 Bucs had no the road, which is certainly a harbinger of good things. Arians recently noted that home field advantage isn't what it usually is, due to the absence of full stadiums caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, going on the road adds a level of difficulty to a game weekend, particularly with the restrictions involved in travel on players and coaches this year. The Bucs haven't lost on the road since Week Five, and that was a one-point decision in Chicago; they would like to keep that run going to the end of the season so that they can get at least one more road trip in January.
1. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin vs. Falcons CB A.J. Terrell
The Falcons took Terrell, the former Clemson star with the 16th-overall pick in April's draft, and while some critics thought that was too early the former Clemson star has delivered exactly what the team needed: A true number-one corner to replace Desmond Trufant. Terrell shined in training camp, standing up well to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and while he struggled in his NFL debut against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks he bounced right back in Week Two against the Cowboys' Amari Cooper and has been quite good since. In Week 13, he forced a critical late-game fumble that fueled Atlanta's comeback hopes against New Orleans. The Falcons have put Terrell right into the more difficult left corner spot, so he'll get some coverage duties on Godwin when the Bucs receiver is on the right side. So far this season, Godwin's snaps have been split almost exactly down the middle between the right and left sides, and while he's in the slot most often he also plays outside plenty, especially when the Bucs have just two receivers on the field. The Buccaneers ran more than they threw in the win over Minnesota and Godwin finished with a season-low two catches for 25 yards on three targets. However, he had been oft-targeted and prolific in Tampa Bay's three previous games and is now further removed from the finger injury that raised the level of difficulty for him for about a month. Godwin is the Buccaneers' best slot receiver and best at gaining yards after the catch so he is likely to see plenty of action on Sunday and will challenge a rookie cornerback for the second week in a row.
2. Falcons T Kaleb McGary vs. Buccaneers OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
Recently, Pierre-Paul and fellow edge rusher Shaq Barrett have switched sides with Pierre-Paul now primarily lining up over the right tackle and Barrett taking on the left tackle. The results have been good, such as three combined sacks and a forced fumble from that pair in the win over Minnesota. McGary, a first-round pick in 2019, missed the Falcons' last game while attending to a personal matter and was replaced by fellow second-year player Matt Gono, so Pierre-Paul is going to have a sizeable edge in experience over his right tackle opponent whether McGary returns this week or not. McGary struggled through much of his rookie season but showed great improvement through the first half of the season, playing like the kind of lineman the Falcons thought they would get with a first-round pick. Atlanta's offensive line as a whole has produced middling results, with the Falcons ranking 20th in sacks-allowed-per-pass-play and 25th in rushing yards. Pierre-Paul has had success against tackles of all stripes this season, recording 9.5 sacks to lead the Buccaneers and rank seventh in the NFL. Both he and Shaq Barrett have gotten hot at the end of the season, just as they did last year, and Pierre-Paul's last four outings have produced 3.0 sacks, four QB hits, two interceptions (!) and a forced fumble. That latest forced fumble, on a strip-sack that essentially sealed the Minnesota win, was Pierre-Paul's fourth of the season.
3. Buccaneers G Ali Marpet vs. Falcons DT Grady Jarrett
Don't be fooled by Jarrett's unassuming basic stats – 47 tackles and 3.0 sacks – as he remains one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the league and the engine that drives the Falcons' defense. Possessed with boundless energy and competitiveness, the sixth-year player has long had more impressive quarterback hit numbers than sack totals, with 62 of the former and 20.5 of the latter over the last four seasons. At 6-0 and 305 pounds, Jarrett isn't huge for an interior lineman but he is very quick and strong and can barrel through a blocker or maneuver around him on a pass rush. In addition, he is tough to move in run defense and good at backside pursuit. Jarrett's Next Gen Stats "heat map" of pre-snap locations shows him moving all over the line between the hashes, so there will inevitably be some times when Marpet will have to try to keep him at bay. Fortunately, the Bucs' blocker is more than up to the task, as he continues to play at a Pro Bowl level after returning from a concussion two games ago. Marpet has a size advantage on Jarrett and can match his strength, and he also moves well and recognizes stunts and tricks. Marpet is part of a Buccaneers line that ranks third in sacks-allowed-per-pass-play and has only allowed three sacks of Tom Brady over the last four games.
4. Falcons WR Calvin Ridley vs. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis
There could be any number of critical matchups on Sunday between the Falcons' pair of dangerous outside receivers and the Bucs' young cornerbacks. However, with the uncertainty surrounding the availability on Sunday of both Atlanta wideout Julio Jones and Tampa Bay cornerback Jamel Dean, the battle most likely to occur is between Ridley and Davis. Davis thus gets this 'Key Matchup' spotlight for a second week in a row after his impending battle with Vikings WR Adam Thielen was noted in Week 14. Davis helped hold Thielen to three catches for 39 yards, with a long of 15 and he also made one very important third-down pass break-up when covering Justin Jefferson. If the Falcons decide to let Jones rest his balky hamstring for a second straight game, Tampa Bay's coaching staff could choose to have Davis shadow Ridley, as they have with a couple other number-one receivers this year. Ridley is that for Atlanta right now, as he's emerged as a star number-one in his own right in his third year. The former Alabama star is among NFL leaders in deep-throw targets this year and has averaged 15.7 yards per grab while scoring eight touchdowns. He has already surpassed 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and he's coming off a pair of 100-yard games in which he was targeted a combined 22 times. Davis, who is tied for the NFL lead with 17 passes defensed this year, is a good size match for the 6-1 Ridley and has shown he can plaster in coverage on receivers who get in and out of their breaks quickly, as Ridley does.
DNP: Did not participate in practice
LP: Limited participation in practice
FP: Full participation in practice
NL: Not listed
- LB Lavonte David (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- CB Jamel Dean (groin) – WEDS: LP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- TE Rob Gronkowski (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- T Joe Haeg (illness) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DL Steve McLendon (elbow/not injury related) – WEDS: LP; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DL Ndamukong Suh (not injury related) - WEDS: NL; THURS: NL. FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
- S Ricardo Allen (concussion) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- G James Carpenter (groin) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- DT Marlon Davidson (knee) – WEDS: LP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- CB Darqueze Dennard (quadriceps) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- RB Todd Gurley (not injury related) - WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DT Grady Jarrett (groin) - WEDS: NL; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Not listed.
- WR Julio Jones (hamstring) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- C Alex Mack (not injury related) - WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP; FRI: NL. Game Status: Not listed.
- T Kaleb McGary (not injury related) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Questionable.
- DE Steven Means (hand) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Not listed.
- WR Calvin Ridley (foot) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Not listed.
- FB Keith Smith (neck) – WEDS: LP; THURS:FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DE Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (elbow) - WEDS: NL. THURS: LP. FRI: LP. Game Status: Not listed.
- LB Mykal Walker (shoulder) – WEDS: LP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
Domed stadium. Outside: Partly cloudy, high of 48, low of 35, 17% chance of rain, 64% humidity, winds out of the WSW at 7 mph.
Head referee: Brad Rogers (4 seasons, 2 as referee)
- Favorite: Buccaneers (-6.0)
- Over/Under: 48.5
INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
- Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 110
- Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans, 11
- Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 3,496
- Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 96.3
- Rushing Yards: RB Ronald Jones, 900
- Receptions: WR Mike Evans/WR Chris Godwin, 51
- Receiving Yards: WR Mike Evans, 669
- Interceptions: CB Carlton Davis, 4
- Sacks: OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, 9.5
- Tackles: ILB Devin White, 118
- Points Scored: K Younghoe Coo, 124
- Touchdowns: RB Todd Gurley, 9
- Passing Yards: QB Matt Ryan, 3,660
- Passer Rating: QB Matt Ryan, 89.3
- Rushing Yards: RB Todd Gurley, 645
- Receptions: WR Calvin Ridley, 67
- Receiving Yards: WR Calvin Ridley, 1,029
- Interceptions: CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 3
- Sacks: LB Deion Jones, 3.5
- Tackles: LB Foyesade Oluokon, 97
TEAM STAT RANKINGS
- Scoring Offense: 6th (28.5 ppg)
- Total Offense: 17th (358.2 ypg)
- Passing Offense: 11th (261.0 ypg)
- Rushing Offense: 26th (97.2 ypg)
- First Downs Per Game: t-19th (21.5)
- Third-Down Pct.: t-11th (43.1%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 3rd (3.21%)
- Red Zone TD Pct.: 6th (70.8%)
- Scoring Defense: 11th (22.6 ppg)
- Total Defense: 7th (330.3 ypg)
- Passing Defense: 21st (249.4 ypg)
- Rushing Defense: 1st (80.9 ypg)
- First Downs Allowed Per Game: 7th (19.9)
- Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 15th (41.0%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 6th (8.11%)
- Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 16th (61.9%)
- Turnover Margin: t-8th (+5)
- Scoring Offense: 16th (25.2 ppg)
- Total Offense: 15th (367.2 ypg)
- Passing Offense: 6th (268.9 ypg)
- Rushing Offense: 25th (98.3 ypg)
- First Downs Per Game: t-11th (22.7)
- Third-Down Pct.: 10th (43.3%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 20th (6.60%)
- Red Zone TD Pct.: 31st (48.9%)
- Scoring Defense: 16th (24.8 ppg)
- Total Defense: 28th (390.6 ypg)
- Passing Defense: 30th (281.8 ypg)
- Rushing Defense: 10th (108.8 ypg)
- First Downs Allowed Per Game: 2oth (22.2)
- Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 14th (40.4%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 23rd (5.06%)
- Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 29th (68.2%)
- Turnover Margin: t-12th (+3)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- WR Mike Evans has 11 touchdown receptions in 2020 , which is only one shy of his own team record in that category, which he set at 12 as a rookie in 2014 and then matched in 2016. Evans also needs just two more touchdowns of any kind to tie the team record of 13 that James Wilder set in 1984.
- In addition, Evans can join a select group of NFL receiving stars with at least 71 yards and one touchdown on Sunday in Atlanta. With 7,929 yards and 59 TD catches in his career, Evans would needs those totals Sunday to join Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Harrison, Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe as the only players in league history to amass at least 8,000 receiving yards and 60 TD catches through their first seven seasons.
- CB Carlton Davis has a team-high four interceptions this season. If he gets one more he'll be the first Buccaneer with a five-interception season since Lavonte David in 2013.
- TE Cameron Brate hauled in his 29th career touchdown pass in the Bucs' Week 10 win over Carolina, putting him in fourth place on the Bucs' all-time list in that category. Two more would pull him even with the man in third place, former WR Kevin House, who had 31 scoring grabs as a Buccaneer.
- QB Tom Brady has 30 touchdown passes in 2020, the second-highest single-season total in team history. Brady needs three more to tie Winston's team record of 33, set just last year.
- Jason Pierre-Paul has 9.5 sacks on the season and fellow OLB Shaquil Barrett has 8.0. If Pierre-Paul can get one more and Barrett two more they will become the first pair of Buccaneers teammates to both hit double digits in that category since Warren Sapp and Marcus Jones in 2000.
- Head Coach Bruce Arians on Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense: "I still see a lot of dangerous guys out there. Obviously, I think they're missing [Todd] Gurley a little bit, but those guys – they're going to run the ball, they're going to mix it up [and] they're going deep. I don't see any drop off in Matt's play. When he's protected, he's solid. It's just a matter of, for us, getting that running game shut down and then getting after him."
- Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin on if rookie T Tristan Wirfs has met the expectations the Bucs had when they traded up to draft him 13th overall: "I would say he's probably exceeded our expectations, especially for a rookie. To go up to get him was big by our GM and our owners to allow that to happen. It's huge because it would be tough to say where we would be today without him. Right now, you can't imagine life without him. It's been great. To me personally, he should be a Pro Bowl player. The way he's played, the way he's produced week in and week out, the pass rushers he's seen – he should be an All-Pro in my opinion. Hopefully we don't screw him up and he can continue to play that way. I like him a lot; I'm glad we got him."
- CB Carlton Davis on why the Bucs' defense showed improvement coming out of the bye week: "I think we did a really good job with our fundamentals. Later on in the season, guys always have trouble with simple stuff like technique and things that we do every day but that we take for granted as the season goes along. We just got back to the basics and it worked out for us [last] Sunday. Moving forward, we have to continue to improve upon those small things, not take them for granted and we'll be good."
- Arians on if WR Scotty Miller can do more to get on the field for more snaps: "Yes and no. I think if we have 80 snaps on offense, he'll probably get a bunch more. If you have 42 or whatever it was, you're not going to get as many – a lot of guys aren't going to get as many. He does a great job with his opportunities – he's always ready to go. Each week is a different game plan, so he's done a lot of good things for us and we'll continue to use him."