Falcons vs. Buccaneers Week 3: Five Keys to Early Battle for NFC South Supremacy
This weekend contains many epic showdowns that will be worth tuning into, as there are many rivalry games. The Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants will be facing off, as will the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. But one of the most intriguing games appears to be that of the Atlanta Falcons clashing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Both teams are in a unique situation, with the Falcons having rebounded from a humiliating loss against the Bears in Week 1 by edging the Eagles in a close game. The same can be said for the Buccaneers, who have now gained some momentum after a tough loss to the Detroit Lions, by engineering a come-from-behind victory against the Minnesota Vikings.
Additionally, both teams are 1-1 and tied with the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South lead. And with the Carolina Panthers, a much improved team with Cam Newton at the reigns, the NFC South has arguably become the toughest division in the NFL.
Every game will count for each of these teams. And divisional games will count for even more, as they could be the tie-breaker over who wins this division and makes it to the postseason.
Here are five keys to this early battle for the NFC South:
1. Which Running Back Will Have a Bigger Game?
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Both teams feature very talented playmakers at the running back position. Both have a relatively similar style of play and can cause problems for the opposing defense.
While Michael Turner would appear to be the better running back, LeGarrette Blount may benefit from the homefield advantage that the Buccaneers will have. However, Blount is young and has a great deal of developing to do.
Both players have just come off phenomenal games, with Turner having rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia, and Blount having rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.
With both teams boasting strong secondaries, the outcome of the game could hinge upon which running back has the better game.
2. How Will the Falcons Fare on the Road?
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On paper, there is little doubt that the Falcons are the superior team. They simply have more talent than Tampa Bay, and in theory, would win this game.
But this is the NFL, and on paper really only gives a team an edge. Any team can win any given Sunday. Many factors can contribute to a victory for either team.
One of these factors is homefield advantage. For Atlanta it is a disadvantage.
Atlanta has always had problems playing away from the Georgia Dome, and all three of its losses in 2010 were when the team was on the road.
And their season started off by being pummeled by the Bears in Chicago.
It should also be considered that these two are divisional rivals, and the Buccaneers are more familiar with the Falcons and their tendencies. Homefield advantage might be enough to allow the Buccaneers to edge Atlanta in this matchup.
3. Can the Buccaneers Stop Tony Gonzalez?
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Both teams have very strong secondaries. But the Buccaneers have a relatively weak linebacker corp. As a result, the Falcons could exploit that weakness by utilizing their future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
While Gonzalez is aging, now 35 years old, he still has a great deal to contribute. This season, he has already caught two touchdown passes in just two games.
And if the Buccaneers allow him to have a big game, it could allow Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense to get on a roll and put up a lead so large that not even Josh Freeman can overcome it.
However, talent is not everything. The most important factor in an effective defense is scheme and play calling. If Raheem Morris and the Buccaneers can put together a good game plan, they can reduce Gonzalez's effectiveness.
Gonzalez's effect on the game therefore will be interesting to watch this Sunday.
4. Can the Buccaneers Stop the Falcons Pass Rush?
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While an overall decent offensive line, the Buccaneers also do not offer great protection for their quarterback, Josh Freeman.
And against a Falcons foe that is familiar with the Buccaneers and has great pass rushers in Ray Edwards, John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux, Freeman may be running for his life all day.
Freeman is a relatively mobile quarterback, but he can only dodge so many tackles and evade so many sacks. As cool as he is under pressure in clutch situations, even Freeman would be hard-pressed to make plays when his pocket is collapsing around him.
Just like scheme makes all the difference for a defense, the same can be said for an O-line. And whether or not the Buccaneers can protect Freeman may ultimately decide if the Buccaneers can pull off the victory.
5. Will Mike Williams Have a Breakout Game?
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Coming off a 2010 season that saw him catching 11 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards, many fantasy experts saw Williams as a rising star and, at only 24 years of age, likely to emerge as one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.
But fantasy owners have surely been disappointed with Williams' production so far.
While having caught one touchdown, Williams has so far been held to only four catches for 46 yards, which included the Vikings holding him to a miserable minus 4 yards this past weekend.
Other than tight end Kellen Winslow, Williams is Freeman's most potent weapon at receiver and will need to produce if the Buccaneers are to be successful in 2011. And against a Falcons' offense that can put up a great deal of points on any team, Freeman will need all the playmakers he can get to try to keep up.
He is very talented and so long as his quarterback does not give up on him, he can find the endzone.
This game will be a tough game for Williams, as Atlanta's Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are excellent cornerbacks and will make it difficult for the young receiver to get open. But the success of Williams will do much to aid in a Buccaneers' victory and a crucial divisional win over a good divisional rival.