Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Full Tampa Bay Game Preview

Luke Easterling@@LukeEasterlingCorrespondent IDecember 3, 2015

Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Full Tampa Bay Game Preview

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will look to get back to .500 in a key division showdown this week against the Atlanta Falcons.

    This matchup will be the closest thing to a playoff game the NFL will see in Week 13, as both the Bucs and Falcons are still jockeying for the wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs. Tampa Bay currently sits at 5-6 after snapping its two-game winning streak with a 25-12 loss on the road to the Indianapolis Colts last week, while the Falcons are riding a four-game losing skid.

    The winner of this game will still have a fairly strong shot at making the playoffs, while the loser will be one step closer to looking ahead to the 2016 NFL draft.

    Bucs fans, here's everything you need to know heading into this week's NFC South showdown.

    Viewing Info

    Date: Sunday, Dec. 6

    Time: 1 p.m. ET

    Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida

    TV: Fox

Week 12 Results and Recap

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    NFC South Standings

    1. Carolina Panthers (11-0)
    2. Atlanta Falcons (6-5)
    3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6)
    4. New Orleans Saints (4-7)

    The Indianapolis Colts ended Tampa Bay's two-game winning streak with a 25-12 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium last week, thanks to a turnover-free performance on offense and a defense that shut the Bucs out in the second half.

    Tampa Bay headed into halftime with a 12-6 lead thanks to a pair of Connor Barth field goals and a touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Cameron Brate. But the Bucs offense lost its rhythm in the second half and couldn't convert on third down with the same ease it was able to in the first half, leading to advantageous field position and sustained drives for the Colts.

    The Bucs lost despite outgaining the Colts 344-336 on offense, thanks in large part to their plethora of penalties. Tampa Bay was flagged 12 times for 95 yards, keeping them atop the entire NFL as the league's most penalized team.

    After bending plenty but not breaking in the first half, Tampa Bay's defense finally burst in the second half, allowing a pair of T.Y. Hilton touchdown catches that let the Colts pull away.

    Veteran Matt Hasselbeck was extremely efficient, completing 26 of his 42 passes for 315 yards and a pair of touchdowns while playing in place of the injured Andrew Luck. The Colts haven't lost since Hasselbeck took over as the starter.

News and Notes

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Lovie: Final Stage of Rebirth for Bucs

    Lovie Smith's first season as head coach didn't go as well as fans hoped, as the Bucs limped to a 2-14 record in 2014. But Tampa Bay has bounced back in Smith's second year, sitting just below .500 and still in the playoff hunt in December.

    Smith says the team is entering the final stage of the rebuilding process, per Zach Shapiro of PewterReport.com:

    This is the final stage of our growth, rebirth, whatever you want to call it, it’s to finish on this back stretch. Right now, as you look at our season, we went 1-3 in the first quarter, 2-2 in the second, we have an opportunity – no, it’s a must – that we go 3-1 in this third quarter, finishing up with 4-0 in the last. Yes, the final phase is that.

    A win on Sunday would put the Bucs in position to make a serious run at a wild-card spot, which would be an impressive turnaround for a team that had the league's worst record last year and has started a rookie quarterback all season.

    Falcons Were Keen on Kwon

    Tampa Bay's 23-20 November win over the Falcons featured an incredible performance from rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, who played with a heavy heart following the death of his brother just days before.

    Falcons head coach Dan Quinn hasn't been surprised at all when it comes to Alexander's success.

    "I knew him going through the draft process," Smith said, per Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune. "I went down to Baton Rouge to work him out and left there so impressed. I had a sense that this is a young guy who is absolutely going to go for it."

    Alexander is currently facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, but since he's still in the process of appealing the ruling, he's expected to play on Sunday.

    Bucs Don't Have Time for 'Rookie Wall'

    When college players transition to the NFL, their first year can be tough for many different reasons. One of them is the length of the season compared to the shorter college campaign.

    When asked about the so-called "rookie wall," Smith doubts his young players are having a problem with it—but he has a message for them if they are, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times:

    I'm just not among the group of people that think that's an issue. I mean, Jameis Winston? 'Hey, Jameis, are you getting tired?' Nah, I don't think that's coming up with him. 'Kwon (Alexander), are you getting tired?' Nah, I don't think so.

    I'm going to say that about all of our guys. Ali Marpet? No. Can't wait to get back in there. So I just don't put a whole lot into that.

    But where we are with our football team, where we're counting on so many of our young players, if it is, they'd better keep it to themselves.

    The Bucs have rookie starters at some of the game's most important positions—quarterback, left tackle, middle linebacker—and are indeed counting on other first-year players to play significant roles for them as they make a push for the playoffs. The NFL is anything but forgiving, and Smith clearly wants his guys to be aware they can't afford any excuses down the stretch.

Latest Injury News

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    DT Gerald McCoy

    McCoy was one of seven Bucs who weren't able to participate in Wednesday's practice. The three-time Pro Bowler is dealing with a hand injury, and with Clinton McDonald already on injured reserve, the Bucs are already thin at defensive tackle. McCoy notched his seventh sack of the season last week, which leads the team.

    WR Vincent Jackson

    Jackson already missed four games earlier in the season with a knee injury, but he was back on the injury report for the same reason this week, missing Wednesday's practice. His presence has a huge impact on the passing game, so keep an eye on his status throughout the week. Tampa Bay's offense can ill afford to lose him for this vital division matchup.

    DE Jacquies Smith

    Smith missed time earlier in the year with an ankle injury, but it's a hamstring injury that kept him out of practice entirely on Wednesday. He is the clear catalyst to the front four generating consistent pressure, so losing him again would be a huge blow to the entire defense.

    OT Gosder Cherilus

    After Demar Dotson went down with a knee injury in preseason, the Bucs signed Cherilus to replace him in the starting lineup. Dotson has since returned, but he hasn't supplanted Cherilus at his right tackle spot. He might get his chance to do just that this week, as Cherilus was unable to participate in Wednesday's practice due to a knee injury.

    TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

    It looks like the same story this week that we've seen for the last month or so, as Seferian-Jenkins was able to participate in Wednesday's practice in a limited capacity, but it's still unclear whether he'll be cleared to play on Sunday. His shoulder injury has kept him out of action since Week 2, much longer than many expected.

    G Ali Marpet

    The best news on the Tampa Bay injury report this week is Marpet returning to full participation in practice on Wednesday. The rookie starter at right guard has missed the last few games with an ankle injury, and his absence has been painfully evident. If he stays on track and is able to return to the starting lineup this week, it'll be a huge boost for Tampa Bay up front.

    *All injury information courtesy of Buccaneers.com

Top Matchups

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    Cliff McBride/Getty Images

    Mike Evans vs. Desmond Trufant

    This game will again feature a showdown between two talented young playmakers on the outside, as Trufant will look to lock down Evans and prevent him from making big plays down the field.

    Evans has struggled with focus and drops throughout the season, but he's still on pace to eclipse his 1,000-yard rookie season. He dropped a key would-be touchdown last week and will be looking for a bounce-back performance this week against one of the best young corners in the NFL.

    Julio Jones vs. Bucs Secondary

    After a few strong performances in a row, Tampa Bay's defensive backfield took a step back last week, letting veteran Matt Hasselbeck throw for over 300 yards while failing to force a single turnover.

    This week, it will have to contain one of the most explosive big-play threats in the league in Jones, who needs jut six catches to top 100 for the season already. Sterling Moore and Jude Adjei-Barimah did a decent job against Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant, but he struggled last week against T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and the Colts passing attack.

    They'll look to get back to a higher level of play this week in the biggest game of the year so far.

Matchup X-Factors

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Bucs X-Factor of the Week: RB Doug Martin

    This may seem like an obvious choice, but the Bucs seemed to forget Martin existed in the second half of last week's loss, so I'll take this opportunity to remind them the NFL's second-leading rusher currently resides in their backfield.

    After racking up 90 yards on just 12 carries in the first half against the Colts last week, Martin was given just two carries in the second half, despite the Bucs coming out of the break with a six-point lead.

    This week, the Bucs would be wise to remember that while Jameis Winston has gotten plenty of press for his impressive rookie season so far—and with good reason—Martin has been the engine that has driven the offense's success this year. They need to feed him early, often and for four quarters this time.

Prediction: Bucs 27, Falcons 23

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The Falcons are desperate and reeling, riding a four-game losing streak that started when Tampa Bay beat them in the Georgia Dome last month.

    While the Bucs are coming off a loss, last week's defeat was a reality check for a young team that needed a reminder it can't expect to coast to a playoff berth just because it put together back-to-back wins against struggling teams.

    I expect Tampa Bay to bounce back this week, riding a healthy dose of Doug Martin that should keep the Falcons honest on defense and open things up for Winston to make plays down the field.

    Atlanta should have running back Devonta Freeman back this week, but while they should keep it close, I see the Bucs locking up a sweep of the Dirty Birds with a close win at home to get them back to .500.

    Final Prediction: Bucs 27, Falcons 23

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