At the midpoint of the NFL season, two of the biggest surprises have been from two NFC South teams, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though the Falcons have made the playoffs three out of the previous four seasons, no one expected the Mike Smith-coached team to sport the league's best record while winning multiple close games.
Likewise, many analysts and experts expected the upstart Bucs to be several seasons away from playoff contention, due to their youth, inexperience and questionable lack of depth under rookie head coach Greg Schiano.
However, after just ten games, the Falcons looked locked into the NFC's top playoff seed while Tampa attempts to win a Wild Card and play in January. On Sunday afternoon, the two will meet for the first time this season in what is expected to be a close game.
In years past, the Falcons featured a very balanced offensive attack between the arm of QB Matt Ryan and the power legs of RB Michael Turner. Ryan is on pace to shatter his previous career seasons bests and is currently among the league's elite in his statistics. Ryan ranks sixth in TD passes (20), fourth in completion percentage (67.5) and passing yardage (3,000+), and recently dropped to eighth in quarterback rating (94.8, but he did uncharacteristically throw 5 interceptions last weekend).
While the sample size is small (the Falcons only have one loss on the season), Ryan actually had better numbers against the Saints in the 27-31 November 11th loss compared to his averages over the team's nine victories.
While Turner used to be the key that ignited this Falcon offense, Ryan has emerged as not only the team leader but deservingly among the league's elite at his position. Based off his season averages, I figure that Ryan surpasses 300 passing yards while throwing 2-3 TDs. I don't expect multiple interceptions, especially after last week's game. I don't see the Arizona debacle as the start of a problem for Ryan.
With starting cornerback Eric Wright out for Sunday's contest, both Atlanta wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones figure to be able to pad their stats—both are playing near pro-bowl levels. I believe that White will surpass 100 yards receiving, and if Jones plays he'll add another 70+ yards and a TD or two. If Jones misses this contest, expect more targets for ageless TE Tony Gonzalez, who would look to improve upon his phenomenal season stats.
While in years past, the Falcons were among the league's top rushing teams, the team's run attack and specifically starting running back Michael Turner have significantly fallen off this season.
Turner seems to have lost power in his legs, and it shows with a paltry 3.7 yards per rush average (575 rushing yards on 155 carries). Excluding his top three rushes (only attempts where he reached 20+ yards), his average drops to a ugly 3.5 yards per attempt.
Fantasy Dynasty league owners should expect and anticipate Turner's release this upcoming offseason. 50 rushing yards is hardly a number to brag about, but that might be the ceiling for Turner against Tampa. Against this stout Tampa rush defense I could see him having a smaller impact on fewer carries.
Unfortunately for Turner, the Buc's lead the league in run defense, although that figure is skewed by having the league's worst pass defense.
While the Bucs rank last in the league in pass defense, they have room for improvement and have impressively won their last four games to get into the playoff picture. The Bucs are now without their Week 1 starters (the injured Wright and recently traded CB Aqib Talib) at cornerback but hopefully over these next few weeks their youthful corners will develop into solid starters with decent futures.
Despite being one of the league's most injured squads, Schiano has led this team to become a hard-nosed, no-nonsense team that plays until the final whistle.
Gerald McCoy seems to have developed into the player the Bucs thought they were drafting third overall in 2010. He's become one of the league's premier run defenders. The Bucs feature a nice core of youthful playmakers on defense between McCoy, injured defensive end Adrian Clayborn, linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David and safety Mark Barron. Under Schiano, this unit will only improve.
The biggest surprise concerning the Bucs has been the impressive play of the Muscle Hamster, rookie running back Doug Martin. Martin, a late 1st round pick from Boise State, has quickly become a football sensation since his breakthrough performance against Oakland, where he gained 251 yards on just 25 carries en route to four touchdowns.
Martin how has over 1,300 total yards on the season, and if it weren't for the stellar play of rookie QBs Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck, would be in talks for Rookie of the Year honors.
Miraculously, Martin has continued to perform at this level even without the Buc's starting guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, who both rank among the league's elite at their positions. Offensive line coach Bob Bostad and Schiano have gotten the most from the offensive line unit, as they have played above their potential and kept QB Josh Freeman healthy.
Against a sub-par run defense, Martin could potentially be the game changer. I expect him to gain at least 100 total yards and add a touchdown. If the game remains close, he'll be the Buc's best option to move the chains, so his total yardage number could reach well into 150s.
The signing of former San Diego Charger WR Vincent Jackson has really benefited WR Mike Williams, who slipped in his sophomore season after debuting in 2010 to a great stat line of 964/65/11 (yards/receptions/TDs). While Jackson leads the team with over 860 receiving yards, Williams is on pace to surpass 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Opposing defenses routinely doubled Jackson in the beginning of the season, but they can no longer afford to due to Freeman's chemistry with Williams.
Despite the Falcons featuring one of the deepest and most experienced secondaries in the league, I expect both Buccaneer receivers to make a large impact, perhaps upwards of 175 combined receiving yards and at least one TD. Yet again, the Falcons will start Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson across from them, while having the underrated safety combination of FS Thomas DeCoud and SS William Moore watching Freeman like hawks (er...Falcons?).
Freeman has beautifully rebounded from his disappointing 2011 season, where his numbers dipped to a below-average 74.6 passing rating and a horrendous 16-22 TD to INT ratio.
The combination of more talent to throw to and a more balanced offensive attack has allowed Freeman to take fewer chances, and it shows in his 21-7 TD to INT ratio. Freeman should be able to surpass 200 yards relatively easily, 250 seems likely and if it turns into a shootout he could have a monster game. Luckily for Freeman, this Bucs offense has the ability to play with the lead (and hammer the trenches with Martin) or play catch-up through the air.
The Atlanta defense mirrors their offense: strong passing units (fourth offensively, seventh defensively) but weak rushing (28th offensively and 26th defensively). The defense has maintained a "bend don't break" mentality, as they've come through in the clutch and have allowed over 24 twice (in their loss to the Saints, and in a 30-28 September victory over the Panthers).
While the defense has 19 total turnovers, outside of DE John Abraham, few Falcon defenders have been able to consistently get after opposing quarterbacks. After Abraham's 9 sacks, DT Jonathan Babineaux is a distant second with just 3.5 sacks. These figures aren't likely to change this weekend either.
The offensive and defensive units have played harmoniously as it's clear that if one of them struggles, the other has been able to step up their play. This is obvious due to their seven games decided by a touchdown or less.
Hopefully defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will have LB Sean Weatherspoon at his disposal—Weatherspoon's right ankle has caused the linebacker to miss action since Week 8 but has resumed practicing of this week and might be able to play Sunday.
Although the Falcons are in first place in the NFC, this game is more important to the Bucs as their second-half schedule is among the worst in the league. Over the next few weeks they play Denver, New Orleans and against these same Falcons.
In order for Schiano and company to remain a threat in the NFC, they will have to win at least three of their next six games.
While this Falcon team has been fortunate to win several close games, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tampa take this important game. If Atlanta is able to get Turner going early and often, they should be able to lock up this game and potentially their division early. However, if the Bucs' secondary is able to contain Ryan, White and potentially Jones, expect this one to be a nailbiter. I'm taking the upset here and taking the Bucs 31 Falcons 27.