The NFL knows a good drama series when it sees one.
If the NFL regular season was a day of programming, then December would be prime time, and prime time is almost always where you find the Atlanta Falcons-Tampa Bay Buccaneers rematch at Raymond James Stadium. In fact, since the two teams became foes in the new NFC South in 2002, their second meeting of the season has been played after December 1 in Tampa every year except 2008.
The Bucs and Falcons will renew that December rival this Sunday as a late-afternoon contest after the league moved the kickoff time from its original 1:00 p.m. ET slot to 4:15. It's easy to understand why the NFL would "flex" this weekend's game at Raymond James Stadium, because in TV programming parlance, this is a very special episode.
The Bucs and Falcons have been here before, ready to provide season cliffhangers. The 2002 matchup pitted the Bucs against Michael Vick on his first career hot streak in a battle for first, in which speed cop Derrick Brooks shut down Vick and the Bucs won 34-10. The 2005 game was just as memorable for the Buccaneers, as it took a blocked field goal in overtime to prevail 27-24 and hold on to a slim lead in the South in Week 16.
But the producers of this season's show are really pulling out all the stops. Yes, it's another critical playoff-chase battle, with the 7-3 Buccaneers badly needing to reel in the 9-2 Falcons and stay alive in the division race. And yes, this might be the most talented Atlanta roster the Bucs have seen yet, one that has produced four straight wins in the head-to-head series. And yes, the youngest team in the league is still trying to prove it belongs in the postseason hunt.
On top of all of that, though, is the little matter of orange pride. Fans attending Sunday's game will be amazed by the sights, as Raymond James Stadium is transported back to 1976, from the stadium bunting to the videoboard graphics to the authentic paint on the field. And, of course, the players in their throwback uniforms.
"I'm really looking forward to wearing the orange uniforms," said rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "I wasn't here last year, but I heard they were amazing, and I know we won that game. Hopefully we can do the same thing this year."
Indeed, the brilliant orange jerseys gave the Bucs a lift last November when they rallied for a 38-28 win over the playoff-bound Green Bay Packers in then-rookie quarterback Josh Freeman's first career start. Given how Freeman's career has taken off since, and how fantastically the throwback uniforms and stadium modifications were received by the fans, it proved to be one of the most memorable afternoons in franchise history, perfectly melding past, present and future.
That might seem impossible to top, but this year's Throwback Game has an excellent chance to do just that. The stadium will be even more visually impressive this time around, right down to the end zones painted to look exactly as they did in the inaugural 1976 season, and legendary Head Coach John McKay will be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor at halftime. Members of that groundbreaking 1976 team will be recognized throughout the first half, and even the Buccaneers cheerleaders will borrow their game-day look from the past.
And then, of course, there is the matter of some of the finest talent in the NFL collected on one field. Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan. Roddy White and Aqib Talib. Michael Turner and Gerald McCoy. Mike Williams and Dunta Robinson. Is there any doubt that this one is headed for an exciting conclusion in the final minutes of the show?
Will the Bucs get another boost from their throwback uniforms and move within a game of first place in the ultra-competitive NFC South? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers' injury report for the week was almost empty, but of course that's because mishaps to Davin Joseph, Cody Grimm and Kyle Moore were serious enough to land all three on injured reserve. RB Cadillac Williams (ribs) missed Wednesday's practice but wasn't considered a major concern.
Atlanta: As the week began, the Falcons were keeping an eye on nine players who were either held out of practice or limited on the field. That group included six starters: DE John Abraham (groin), DE Kroy Biermann (ankle), WR Michael Jenkins (quad), LB Curtis Lofton (knee), S William Moore (thigh) and WR Roddy White (knee).
- Kellen Winslow, TE, Buccaneers. The veteran pass-catcher who set all of the Buccaneers' receiving records for tight ends last year, in his first season in red and pewter, is mounting a stretch run that could challenge his 2009 numbers in the end. Over the past three weeks, Winslow has caught 14 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Those were his first two touchdowns of the season, and QB Josh Freeman has looked for Winslow repeatedly in the red zone in recent weeks.
- Sean Jones, S, Buccaneers. Jones is still looking for his first interception as a Buccaneer, but in recent weeks he has quietly been one of the team's more productive defenders. Jones' strong work in the box has helped the Bucs vastly improve their run defense, and over the last four weeks he has 25 tackles. Also, Jones' last three outings have seen him record his first sack of the season, his first fumble recovery of the season and his second pass defensed of the season.
- Michael Turner, RB, Falcons. Don't look now, but the 2008 version of Michael Turner appears to have returned. Turner was a beast in his first year in Atlanta, gaining 1,699 rushing yards and scoring 17 times to help lead the surprise Falcons to the playoffs. Well, over his last five games, Turner has burned opposing teams for an average of 102 yards per game and has scored six touchdowns. Turner exceeded 4.5 yards per carry in four of those five games.
- Brent Grimes, CB, Falcons. Grimes' hot streak began with the Buccaneers in Week Nine, when he picked off a Josh Freeman pass in the fourth quarter of a very tight game. (That, by the way, is the last time Freeman has been intercepted.) Over the last four games, Grimes has made 23 tackles, broken up five passes and recorded two of his three interceptions on the season. Grimes leads all Atlanta defenders in 2010 with 11 passes broken up.
- Corey Lynch, S, Buccaneers. Lynch has no tackles, sacks or interceptions yet this season, but that's hardly his fault; he has yet to play on defense in the regular season. If Lynch gets the call to replace Cody Grimm at free safety, it will be interesting to see if he can duplicate his playmaking performances from the preseason in a regular-season game. Buc fans may recall the last time Lynch got to play D he picked off two passes and returned one for a touchdown in the preseason finale at Houston.
- Earnest Graham, RB, Buccaneers. Graham, the Bucs' Swiss Army knife in the backfield, returned two weeks ago after missing roughly a month with a hamstring injury. He has been valuable since his return, starting at fullback, but the team hasn't put the ball in his hands much yet on offense. Graham had three carries for seven yards in the Week 11 win at San Francisco, but none in Baltimore and, though he's an excellent receiver, he has no catches yet in the two games back.
- Thomas DeCoud, S, Falcons. DeCoud played a big role in the Falcons' win over Green Bay last week, racking up seven tackles, forcing a fumble and breaking up a pass. That was his most productive game in some time, and perhaps a sign that DeCoud is going to emerge as another Falcon playmaker down the stretch. Before that game, DeCoud had recorded three or fewer tackles in five straight games and had no interceptions or passes defensed in that stretch.
- Harry Douglas, WR, Falcons. A third-round pick in 2008, Douglas showed quite a bit of promise as a rookie but then missed the entire 2009 season with a training camp knee injury. He returned with a bang to start the 2010 campaign, catching 15 passes in the first six games, in part because Michael Jenkins was unable the first five weeks. Since Jenkins' return, Douglas has been quite, with just three catches over a five-game span. He did have two grabs against Green Bay, so perhaps he is working back into the Falcons' offensive plans.
- The arrow is trending down, but that's a good down arrow, as in scoring is down against the Bucs' defense, especially after halftime. Against Baltimore last weekend, the Bucs pitched a second-half shutout for the fifth time this season, and the seventh time in their last 14 games, dating back to the end of 2009. The most second-half shutouts Tampa Bay has ever posted in a single season is six in 2002, and that included the last two games as the Bucs made their playoff stretch run.
- Speaking of that Buccaneer D, it had 14 interceptions through the first seven games, or exactly two per game, and everyone assumed that when the pass rush kicked into a higher gear, those pick numbers would go through the roof. Weirdly, it hasn't worked out that way…yet. Over the last four games, the Bucs have 12 sacks, after getting just six in the first four games, and yet they have picked off just two passes in that span.
- When the Bucs' second-half rally in Atlanta in Week Nine fell just short, it was disappointing for the visitors but part of a happy trend for the home team. Since Mike Smith took over as the Falcons' head coach, the team is 24-1 when it takes a lead into halftime, including 6-0 this year and 7-0 in 2009. Atlanta has built its halftime leads with an NFL-best 107-38 scoring differential in the second quarter.
- DE John Abraham has four sacks over the Falcons' last three games; the rest of the team has none. The Falcons' pass rush hasn't produced sack numbers over the last month in as much abundance as it did during the team's first seven games. Atlanta averaged more than two sacks per game through the first seven outings; over the last four, Atlanta-slash-Abraham have netted just one sack per game.
Ray Hamilton, the Falcons defensive line coach for the last three years, began his NFL coaching career in 1985 with the Patriots. After five seasons in New England as an assistant defensive line coach, Hamilton spent one year with a semi-pro team called the Bay State Titans. When he returned to the NFL the following season, it was with the Buccaneers, taking over the defensive line under Head Coach Richard Williamson, who had been hired full-time after finishing 1990 as the interim head coach. Williamson's tenure lasted just through the end of that season, so Hamilton moved on too, first to the University of Tennessee and then back into the pros, where he has been ever since.
ONE TO WATCH
S Vince Anderson got the call up to the 53-man roster this week, and his story could prove to be very interesting. The first player from NAIA school Webber International to make to the NFL, the 6-2, 205-pound Anderson has outstanding size for the position, and he has shown intriguing athleticism on the Bucs' practice field all season. Anderson has yet to play in a regular-season NFL game, but the Buccaneers have been interested in getting a look at him for months now, and that opportunity has now presented itself.