Before we begin, I just wanted to wish you and your families a very happy and prosperous New Year.
The dropping of the ball in Times Square always leads to renewed hope. We move into the decade where we should visit Mars, have flying cars (at least that's what I was told when I was a kid), and the Buccaneers have some hope for a much better 2010 than '09.
The Buccaneers are coming off their first two-game winning streak since November 2008. What's more is it's a two-game winning streak on the road in two of the toughest venues to play in the NFL
Granted, the Seattle Seahags have mailed in the rest of '09, but the highflying New Orleans Saints certainly hadn't. Home field advantage was on the line, and they wanted to get themselves back on track before the playoffs.
The Bucs kept the best team in the NFC derailed.
So for their finale, the Bucs entertain another division rival, the Atlanta Falcons, at Raymond James Stadium. The Falcons are also playing for something, back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in their franchise's history.
What would be better for Tampa Bay than to end the season with the authority of a three-game winning streak and keep one of the more dubious statistics in the NFL alive and well?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing game vs. Atlanta Falcons Pass Defense
Josh Freeman had his best day as a pro against the Falcons suspect secondary in their last meeting. Completing 20-of-29 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and most importantly, no turnovers.
If Freeman can duplicate that performance in Tampa, the Bucs will have a tremendous chance to win.
On the season, Tampa Bay remains 25th in the league in passing, while the Falcons are 28th against the pass.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Rushing Attack vs. Atlanta Falcons Rush Defense
The Bucs have had a new dedication to the running game, and they responded with their best consecutive outings of the season. Carnell Williams rushed for over 100 yards in a game for the first time since 2006. He was the battering ram that got the Bucs down the field for the game-winning field goal against the Saints.
Atlanta's defense is better against the run than it is the pass. In their previous meeting, Atlanta were able to limit the Buccaneers to just 75 yards on the ground.
The Bucs need to a lot more than that to make the play action effective and keep Josh Freeman out of trouble.
Atlanta's 17th against the run, while the Bucs' running game is now up to 23rd.
Atlanta Falcons Passing Game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense
The Bucs put heavy pressure on the second -quarterback and knocked Ryan out of the game early in the first meeting. Tampa Bay finished the game with a season high six sacks on Ryan and backup Chris Redman.
Still, Redman was able to pass the Falcons down the field for the game-winning touchdown late.
Tampa Bay has since corrected a lot of their deficiencies in the passing game under head coach Raheem Morris' play calling. Their 202 passing yards average over the last five games would be good for 6th in the NFL, if played over the course of the season.
Atlanta's 13th in the league passing the ball.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Atlanta Falcons Running attack vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense
Even under Morris, the Buccaneers continue to struggle in stopping the run. However, in their last meeting with the Falcons, the Bucs managed to limit Atlanta to just 75 yards on the ground.
Michael Turner continues to have issues with his ankle and may not be there for the Falcons in the season finale, hurting the already depleted corps of backs.
The key to this game may very well be the Bucs' ability to shutdown the Atlanta running attack. Everything the Falcons do breathes off the running game. Shut it down and you have a great chance at winning the game. Fail and the Falcons might run you into oblivion.
Atlanta boasts the 17th ranked running attack in the league, while Tampa Bay continues to struggle, ranked 30th against the run.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Special Teams vs. Atlanta Falcons Special Teams
The one unit the Bucs can point to and say no one is better than is the special teams. The "We-fense", as special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia calls it, remains among league leaders in coverage, return yards, and return touchdowns. The Bucs are also getting consistent play from replacement kicker Connor Barth and punter Sam Paulescu.
Atlanta's been pretty solid in kick coverage, but not so good in punt coverage. They also are in the top 10 in kickoff and punt return average.
Former Buccaneers kicker Matt Bryant replaced Jason Elam as kicker but is suffering from the effects of an injury and the sad loss of his father.
Michael Koenen continues as a solid punter for the birds.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Raheem Morris is completing his first season as Buccaneers head coach, and he is 3-12.
Mike Smith is in his second season with the Falcons and is 19-12 as head coach. He took the Falcons to the playoffs in his first season.
- Tampa Bay looks to win their third straight game for the first time since November of last season.
- Several Bucs players have come out in support of Morris, and they've played hard for him down the stretch.
- Atlanta looks to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in their 43-year franchise history.
The Bucs enter the season finale with renewed confidence, thanks to consecutive victories. There are turning points in franchises when the players finally buy into what the coaches are selling, go out, and perform.
The Bucs may be at a critical juncture here. A victory over the Falcons may give ownership enough confidence to keep continuity and avoid the seduction of the quick money grab of Bill Cowher.
A loss could invalidate the last two ball games, further disenchant an already jaded fanbase and lead to Morris' dismissal.
This is, without question, the biggest game of Morris' coaching career.
The Bucs should have beaten the Falcons in Atlanta, and they weren't even playing at the level they are right now.
Atlanta comes in very banged up, and with the Bucs having a lot to play for, I think they pull this one out in a nailbiter.
Final Score: Tampa Bay 20, Atlanta 17.