Could one game make the difference in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' against-the-odds pursuit of a playoff spot in the second half of the 2017 season? Only this is certain: If the Buccaneers can get their first division win of the season in Atlanta on Sunday, one game would be the difference between them and the Falcons in the standings.
Having won two in a row, the Buccaneers are now 4-6, two games behind a 6-4 Falcons team that currently holds the sixth spot in the overall NFC standings. Tampa Bay can't control what happens to 7-3 Carolina or 6-4 Seattle this weekend, but they can help their own cause in relation to the Falcons and then focus on three more division games in the last five weeks.
"Four division games in our last six," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They all matter but those division games count double."
Tampa Bay lost its first two games against NFC South foes, falling to Carolina at home and New Orleans on the road. This is their first meeting with the Falcons since splitting the series last year. Tampa Bay won in Atlanta to start the season but the Falcons roared back to take a 43-28 Thursday night game in Tampa at midseason as they began their run to the Super Bowl. The Falcons eventually won the NFC and took a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI before the New England Patriots rallied for an overtime win. That Atlanta team outscored its opponents by 134 points; this year's group is just as talented but has had to show its mettle in a series of close games.
"They're a really good football team," said Koetter. "It's the same team that was way up in the Super Bowl, could've very easily been World Champions. They've played a lot more close games this year; of their 10 games, seven have been one-score games and they're 4-3 in those games. Imagine, they could be 0-7 or 7-0. If you watch those games, they could've easily lost them all and they won their share. They're a good football team – explosive on offense, fast on defense, they've got good depth and they're well-coached. So we've got a big challenge here."
The Falcons will be without running back Devonta Freeman for a second straight week due to a concussion but still have an offensive attack loaded with all the talent that allowed it to outscore the second-most productive NFL offense by 71 points last year. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the league's reigning MVP, has a diverse array of targets led by wide receiver Julio Jones.
"They have other guys that they throw to down the field; [Mohamed] Sanu's having a good year," said Koetter. "But Julio is kind of like the combination of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. He's fast – real fast, like DeSean – and [he has] great size like Mike and great range like Mike. One of the best in the league; we'll have our hands full with him."
Evans and Jackson headline a Buccaneer offense that also has a lot of potent weapons. At the moment, that offense is being directed by Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will start his third straight game at quarterback as Jameis Winston's injured right shoulder heals. The Bucs are 2-0 in his two starts, and a lot of that is due to Fitzpatrick committing just one turnover in those two games combined.
"He's not turning the ball over," said Koetter of Fitzpatrick's greatest strength through his first two Buc starts. "We talk to the guys every week – if you, as an offense, just don't turn the ball over, we're going to be right there in every single game. It's hard to play a perfect game, but if you don't turn the ball over it will give us a nice chance."
The Buccaneers did not give it away once in Miami but the defense and special teams came up with five takeaways, the key to a 30-20 victory. Tampa Bay ranks second in the NFL in takeaways since the start of the 2016 season, which marked the arrival of former Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith as the defensive coordinator.
"They work on it a lot," said Koetter of Smith's group creating turnovers. "We always talk about it, that turnovers seem to come in bunches. A lot of it has to do with the quarterback you're going against, but we've been on a crazy hot streak with our linebackers stripping balls out, and it's a little bit contagious. I can't explain why – it's the old momentum rule. I hope it keeps up; we need it."
In addition to Winston, the Buccaneers will be without defensive end Robert Ayers and guard Evan Smith, both of whom are dealing with concussions. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves will miss his second straight game with a hamstring ailment. Tampa Bay's other three inactive players are defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, tight end Luke Stocker and tackle Leonard Wester.
The Falcons will be playing without running back Devonta Freeman for a second straight week due to a concussion, but they still have a dangerous pair of backs in Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward, the latter of whom is the brother of Buccaneers safety T.J. Ward. In addition to Freeman, the Falcons deactivated wide receiver Nick Williams, wide receiver Marvin Hall, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, guard Sean Harlow and tackle Ty Sambrailo. Sambrailo, like Freeman, is out due to injury.
The Buccaneers and Falcons kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.