And so it comes down to it: One game to validate our season.
One game to prove we really are headed in the right direction. One game to show that new GM Thomas Dimitroff's personnel moves are good enough to remake an organization. One game to send the team and fans into the offseason with heads held high.
The best chance in recent memory to break the curse of inconsistency that has plagued us and finally string together two winning seasons.
If you think I sound dramatic, you might want to mute the TV tomorrow, and you sure as hell wouldn't want to hear head coach Mike Smith's pre-game locker room speech tomorrow.
What said it all to me was Tony Gonzalez's interview as he was coming off the field at the Jets game two weeks ago. If he still has something to play for this year, then everyone on that team does, too.
The stars are aligning for the Falcons: The opponent is a nobody that we beat earlier with a less healthy and less inspired bunch on our side. Still, going down to Tampa and breaking their streak is not the easiest task the Dirty Birds have had this season.
Tampa Bay Rush Offense v. Atlanta Rush Defense
In my preview of the Week 12 matchup in the Dome, I lamented Cadillac Williams' lack of production this season. Now that the campaign is more or less done, the numbers I cite are even more telling:
Barring a cataclysmic Atlanta collapse, no Tampa back will finish with even 900 yards on the year; and the man second in yards behind Caddy, highly-touted free agent pickup Derrick Ward, probably isn't going to touch 500. In other words, this is a one-headed monster on its best days.
Williams was at his most effective last week, when he topped 100 for the first time in '09 and had his most yards since the opening game. That was against a resting Saints team, though, and not a bunch of inspired Falcons.
Because, see, while the Bay was swooning from their production against the NFC's best, we weren't stooping to the level of our competition. We held the Bills to 40 yards on the ground, and that's with Curtis Lofton notching all of one tackle.
Linebackers taking a back seat like that wasn't a method that worked so well at the beginning of the season for us, but I'm into what's smart and what works, and the coaches seem to be, too. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is favoring packages with a defensive back up in the box for extra support more and more as time goes by, as evidenced by the tackle totals for Brent Grimes (nine) and Erik Coleman (seven) last week.
I could certainly see Williams having a decent game, somewhere along the lines of 80 yards, but he will be limited as long as the Bucs have this offensive line. On the other side, we may not have anything left in the tank, but I have a feeling these fellas will run on fumes if they have to.
Atlanta Rush Offense v. Tampa Bay Rush Defense
Tampa's ground D has at least been headed in the right direction since I was breaking down the first matchup: They have improved from their last-place spot.
Of course, they're now only 30th in the league, so take that with a grain of salt. They just rely way too much on one position (linebacker) for this to be a reliable unit at all.
A couple of stats tell the story: First, the top three tacklers for the Bucs are their starting 'backers. No, I do not expect a lineman to rack up the numbers, and no, I would not be so naive as to evaluate the line's performance based solely upon their digits, but it's sad that the top-tackling guy up front (Stylez White, 42) has just about exactly a third of team-leader Barrett Ruud's 125.
Second, the team's stoppage is dead last in runs greater than 20 yards, and that right there just about invalidates any of their efforts. After all, you can hold 'em to two or three for three plays per set of downs, but let up one big one, and well, it's over.
On to our side of the ball, Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling went out and did just what I said they wouldn't do last week (that'd be a productive two-back attack). That was against an underprepared and downright scared-looking Buffalo D, sure, but it was a confidence-boosting game nonetheless.
Obviously, if we can, we want to keep it on the ground and grind it out. There are too many ballhawks in the T.B. secondary for us to be relying on the pass (but you know I'll get to that).
Now, I thought Harvey Dahl was going to be back on the line for last week and then was proved a bald-faced liar when Quinn Ojinnaka started; this week I know for a fact that Ojinnaka's the one out there. This is a downside for us, as Quinn has been extremely penalty-prone to this point, and seems to infect Tyson Clabo with that same problem when he's out there.
Of course, we got over the century mark running last week and won the game, so what am I complaining about?
Tampa Bay Pass Offense v. Atlanta Pass Defense
On a team full of sorry units, the air game might just be the weakest for the Buccaneers. Of course, if you know who's starting down there, that doesn't even need a qualifier, but in case you've had your eyes closed for the past three months:
Josh Freeman's not only a rookie, but one out of Kansas State. What, they play football there?
Still, I've never seen a guy do this poorly and keep his job. Not that Tampa has any other real options behind him, but just to give readers a taste, he's got his team ranked 30th in interceptions, 29th in completion percentage, 29th in passer rating, 28th in first downs per game, and 28th in points to a contest.
Then again, when we saw him before, we had him playing like he did back in his college days: 20-of-29 for 250 yards, 2 TD and no INT.
So who shows up under center for them tomorrow, and just as important, who's present in our defensive backfield?
Brent Grimes must be reading DDDB , because he's picking up his play. I don't think he ever expected to carry the responsibility he has this season, so really, he might just be ahead of the curve. Erik Coleman also looked more like the leader he's supposed to be against the Bills.
Freeman just can't be as hot as he was in the Dome, and if VanGorder goes with the containment style and box-stacking he showed last week, we won't give up many big plays. That's fine, because stopping Kellen Winslow after the catch is really the goal; what, you thought you were going to disrupt those hands?
But that brings me to another disadvantage for the Bay's passing game: Winslow is the beginning and end. Note that his 72 receptions are almost double second-place receiver Antonio Bryant's 37.
The cards are just stacked against poor Freeman.
Atlanta Pass Offense v. Tampa Bay Pass Defense
Matt Ryan is another week healthier, and considering his performance as he hobbled last week, I'm feeling OK about that.
The receivers have been our rocks all year long, so no worries there (except for Gonzo's questionable rating, but I have faith). What does make me a little uncomfortable, though, is how the Buccaneer pass defense has gotten better since we played them.
Ronde Barber has the young boys around him playing up to his level, well enough that they're all in a pack in terms of tackles and have 17 picks among them. Aqib Talib, for all his off-the-field problems and attitude questions, has emerged as a Asante Samuel-lite sort of player, and Sabby Piscitelli does a solid job of acting as enforcer.
Of course, we had Chris Redman throwing on basically every play in the Week 12 matchup, and that still resulted in no interceptions. Sure, his accuracy was piss-poor, but that's more a symptom of his own problems, not what Tampa's coverage was doing to him.
My thought process goes a little something like this: If we had Redman chucking the rock with reckless abandon last time, and still managed to not turn the ball over and eventually score enough to get the W, we're going to be fine this trip with Ice dropping back instead.
I do not underestimate an 11th-ranked Bay pass D, but I focus instead on the facts that we won't have to throw it nearly as much (41 times for Chris) and that when we do throw it, it'll be a much more of a sure thing. If all goes well, the balance of running to gunning will even out a bit more, and Matty will only be relied upon entirely when it comes to the red zone.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Buccaneers 17
Neither team is going to shoot the lights out. Neither will get an early jump. But I think the Dirty Birds will be in control from start to finish.
The key for me is that our guys know what this game means (for sure they do!) and that they know we're the better team (here's hoping they do). Playing away from home (last road game: win over the Jets in chilly NY) and Tampa's mini-streak cannot be concerns.
Here's hoping I'm writing a retrospective on what it means to have consecutive plus-.500 seasons later this week.