The Falcons have lost five straight since their 56-14 destruction of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, posted the worst come-from-ahead loss in franchise history after blowing a 3-TD halftime lead against the Detroit Lions, and have yet to win a road game in 2014.
Even with this misery the Falcons incredibly could find themselves just one game out of first place in the dreadful NFC South at the end of today. If the Saints lose to the 49ers and the Falcons top the Bucs today in a contest between teams with a combined 3-13 record, our Dirtybirds would be in the playoff race with seven games remaining in the regular season.
It seems each of the past three games have been of the “must-win” variety for Atlanta, but the NFC South is so weak this year that the Falcons still have hope to make the second season – aka the playoffs. Surely they must win today’s game, however, for that slim hope to stay alive. A-town fans hope the bye week off gave sufficient rest for the players and allowed the coaching staff to self-scout and effectively re-tool glaring areas of concern.
The Falcons and Bucs sport the two worst rated defenses in the league at 32nd and 31st, respectively. The difference between winning and losing today will be in which team takes greater advantage of their opponent’s defensive weaknesses.
Expect Matt Ryan to Lead the Falcons to a Win in Tampa Bay. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
The Buccaneers may be without starting running back Doug Martin today which would give Bobby Rainey the start on the road today in the Georgia Dome. It’s been feast or famine for Rainey against the Falcons as he keyed a home win in 2013 with 163 yards and 3 TDs, but he lost 2 fumbles in the blowout contest earlier this season.
UPDATE: Doug Martin has been declared officially out for today’s game.
Tampa Bay gets QB Josh McCown back in the starting lineup for the first time in five games since injuring the thumb on his throwing hand against Atlanta in September.
McCown has actually been available in the Bucs’ past two games but head coach Lovie Smith opted to stay with fill-in QB Mike Glennon under center. McCown could find some success as he attempts to shake the rust off against a Falcons defense that has given up about 291 yards and almost 2 TDs per game in the air in the past four games.
However, I expect Atlanta QB Matt Ryan to lead the Falcons’ 8th-ranked offense to even greater success today. The bye week has provided offensive line coach Mike Tice an opportunity to catch his breath and set a solid rotation after a whirlwind of injuries have hit his group seemingly on a weekly basis.
“James is a really smart guy… and I think he’s cerebral when it comes to making the (offensive line protection) calls” – Falcons head coach Mike Smith
They have lost Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, Joe Hawley and Peter Konz to season-ending injuries and now start undrafted rookie free agents James Stone at center and Ryan Schraeder at right tackle. Mike Smith expressed confidence in Stone, “James is a really smart guy… and I think he’s cerebral when it comes to making the (offensive line protection) calls.”
Tice told ESPN that he expects the two weeks of rest to allow 2014 first-round pick LT Jake Matthews to be effective again, and protecting Ryan’s blindside more successfully will pay big dividends for the Atlanta aerial attack. Look for Ryan to take advantage of the extra time he’s likely to see today to once again light up a Tampa Bay’s defense against which he went 21 of 24 for 286 yards, three TDs, and no interceptions in their last meeting.
In a matchup of teams with awful records and even worse defenses, expect the difference today to be in a revamped offensive line giving Matt Ryan time to spread the ball around the field in a contest I predict will result in a 34-24 win for the Falcons. The question is whether this will be the win that begins a turnaround for Atlanta.