In December of 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Atlanta Falcons in a game that would put the winner at the top of a hotly-contested NFC South. The Bucs won, 34-0, and went on to win not only the division but Super Bowl XXXVII. In November of 2005, the Bucs and Falcons squared off again in Week 11, with a share of first place in the division on the line. The Bucs won in overtime, 30-27, then ran all the way to their second South crown.
Here we go again.
Only in 2002, the first season that paired Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the new NFC South, have the two teams made the playoffs in the same campaign. Atlanta won the division in 2004 when the Bucs were down. The Falcons made some midseason noise during the Bucs' 2005 championship season but faded to 8-8. Atlanta came in last when Tampa Bay won again in 2007, and the Bucs dropped out of the race at the end of '08 when Atlanta steamed back into playoff contention.
This could be the year the two teams once again fight it out to the end, and if so, this Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome could prove to be critical. At the very least, the winner of the game is going to be tied for the best record in the NFC, and alone at the top if the New York Giants lose at Seattle. Such circumstances only fuel what is already a very intense rivalry.
"It's the Falcons," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It's a division rival and a great premium matchup. It's 5-2 versus 5-2 and they're a very talented team, a team that we have a lot of respect for but have no fear of. We like to go out and compete with these guys. It will be exciting on the sideline. I'm sure there will be a bunch of chirping. We've just got so much healthy respect for each other and what we're able to do, but that doesn't mean we like each other anymore."
That memorable 2002 game was Michael Vick and Derrick Brooks, Brad Johnson and Patrick Kerney. Eight years later, each franchise is ushering in a new era of success with a new cast. The Falcons have red hot Matt Ryan at the helm and Roddy White moving to the uppermost echelon of NFL wideouts. The Buccaneers have found their franchise quarterback as well in Josh Freeman and have surrounded him with extremely young and extremely promising talent. Both teams are positioning themselves for a long run of success, not just a playoff cameo.
The Falcons turned the corner in 2008 with the arrivals of Ryan and free agent running back Michael Turner and new Head Coach Mike Smith. The Buccaneers, in the second seasons for Morris and Freeman, are turning their own corner now. Late last year, as those two upward arrows started to intersect, the Falcons pulled out a last-minute 20-17 victory in Atlanta. Since then, it's the Buccaneers and Freeman who have proven particularly adept at the late comeback win. Both teams are among the league leaders in scoring defense after halftime. Everything points to this one going down to the wire, and the Bucs believe they have the internal fortitude to survive such a challenge.
"In order to get a fourth-quarter comeback, you've got to get some big fourth-quarter stops," said Morris. "I think it's about the team coming out after halftime and being ready to play, and really I attribute to that us playing 60-minute games. These guys never quit, they never shut it down, they play fast, they play hard. When we go into the locker room, it's never woe is me, whether we're down, up, tied. It doesn't matter. The score's 0-0 in those guys head; let's go out there and play another 30 minutes."
And, chances are this weekend, another very memorable moment in the long and heated rivalry between the Buccaneers and the Falcons. Will Tampa Bay prevail and, for the first time in franchise history, win a sixth straight game on the road? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers ruled out four players on Friday: C Jeff Faine, T Jeremy Trueblood, FB Earnest Graham and DT Ryan Sims. The Bucs will also be taking a close look at the injured foot of WR Sammie Stroughter on Sunday in Atlanta.
Atlanta: LB Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons' first round pick this past spring, started the team's first three contests but has since missed three of the last four due to a knee injury. He was not in action on the practice field when the week began, nor was starting fullback Ovie Mughelli.
- Stylez G. White, DE, Buccaneers. The Bucs are still not piling up as many sacks as they would like. However, of the six sacks the Bucs have so far, two have come courtesy of big plays by White in the last two outings, each one leading to a fumble. Against the Rams, his first-quarter sack led to a Bucs field goal. Last week, the Cards recovered the fumble that White caused, but the lost time on the play essentially ended Arizona's last crack at getting into field goal range.
- LeGarrette Blount, RB, Buccaneers. We called him "Due" last week, believing the likelihood of a bigger role on offense in the coming weeks would lead to some big numbers from the enormous back. And indeed, it did. Blount pounded Arizona for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, turning in a number of highlight-reel runs in the process. His 48-yard dash in the fourth quarter included a vault over a defender that will be remembered for a long time.
- Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons. Atlanta's third-year quarterback has been nothing short of outstanding this year, and he just keeps getting better as the season goes on. Ryan's numbers from Weeks 1-4 were quite good, including a 6-3 TD-INT and a passer rating of 86.5, but in the last three games that rating has soared to 94.2. Ryan's last outing against Cincinnati: 24 of 33 (72.7%) for 299 yards, three touchdowns and one INT.
- John Abraham, DE, Falcons. Oh, the Bucs know Mr. Abraham well; in four games from 2007-08, he sacked Tampa Bay passers six times, part of his two-year total of 26.5 QB takedowns. Surprisingly, however, Abraham went on a 20-game stretch beginning with the 2009 opener in which he had "only" 7.5 sacks. Is he back, just in time for the Bucs? His four sacks over the last three games are solid evidence to the affirmative.
- Arrelious Benn, WR, Buccaneers. On Monday, one day after Benn turned in a critical 53-yard catch in the fourth quarter in Arizona, QB Josh Freeman praised his rookie teammate for his increasingly sharp route-running. That could lead to more looks for Benn, who has started the last two games at flanker. Benn's single-game high so far this year is three catches, but there's a strong chance he's going to take on a larger role in the Bucs' passing attack in the coming weeks.
- Michael Bennett DE, Buccaneers. The young lineman was inactive for each of the team's first three games, but not because the coaching staff felt he couldn't help the defense. In fact, Bennett is thought to be a great fit in the Bucs' defensive scheme, with the potential to help at both end and tackle. He has been active for the last four weeks and saw his most significant action last Sunday in Arizona, with three tackles.
- Michael Jenkins, WR, Falcons. The tall and speedy veteran missed much of the Falcons' preseason and the first five games of the regular season, but he's back now and quickly making some noise. Starting opposite Roddy White, Jenkins has played in the last two games and caught eight passes for 124 yards. His average of 14.2 yards per catch over the last three seasons, 11th in the NFC in that span, is evidence that he can helpfully stretch the defense.
- Dunta Robinson, CB, Falcons. Atlanta ranks 27th in pass defense this year after finishing 28th in 2009, and the Falcons haven't been higher than 21st in that category since 2005. They have made efforts to improve their secondary in recent years, however, including this year's import of Robinson, the former Texan. Robinson certainly showed the ability to contribute big plays, picking off 13 passes in his first five seasons in Houston, but he's still looking for his first INT as a Falcon.
- With QB Josh Freeman getting better every week, the Bucs' offense has shown an increasing ability to sustain long drives. During their first four games of the season, the Bucs had 17 possessions that started on their own 20 or worse, and only two of those ended in scores (both touchdowns). Over the last three weeks, the Bucs have started 13 drives from that part of the field and scored on six of them (four TDs, two FGs).
- Tampa Bay's defense continues to have difficulty piling up sacks, though the front line has put a decent amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as evidenced by the team's league-high 14 interceptions. In terms of pure sack numbers, however, the trend line has been low and level – either one or zero QB takedowns for five straight games.
- The Bucs have certainly been strong in the second half this season, pitching three shutouts after intermission. But Atlanta has actually been better in the final two quarters in terms of scoring differential. The Falcons have scored 78 second-half points this year and allowed 58, giving them a plus-20 differential that ranks second in the NFL to the Detroit Lions (plus-24).
- In terms of third-down efficiency, Atlanta's defense began the season with two very strong outings, allowing Pittsburgh and Arizona to convert on just four of a combined 22 chances (18.2%). Since then, however, opposing teams have been converting at a rate of over 50% on third downs against Atlanta, surprisingly. The Falcons' last five opponents are 33 of 64 on third downs, or 51.6% successful.
Falcons Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey has had a very interesting NFL coaching career, peaking at head coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2004-05. That career actually began in Tampa in 1994, when the former NFL tight end was hired by Sam Wyche to serve as a quality control coach and then later the tight ends coach for the Buccaneers. Mularkey's Tampa Bay tenure ended when Wyche's did after the '95 season, but he immediately found a spot in Pittsburgh in 2006. After five years in charge of the Steelers' tight ends, Mularkey rose to prominence over the next three seasons as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, gaining attention for his very creative play-calling and use of versatile athletes like Kordell Stewart, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El.
ONE TO WATCH
WR Sammie Stroughter is settling back into the slot-receiver role he filled so capably as a rookie in 2009, and now he might begin reprising another one of his roles from last year. Against Arizona, Stroughter was used on kickoff and punt returns for the first time this year, and his 54 yards on two KO runbacks would have been even better if his 45-yarder in the third quarter hadn't been called back. Stroughter memorably went 97 yards for a score against Carolina on a kickoff return last October.