The 10-5 Buccaneers are home on Sunday to face the 4-11 Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of Tampa Bay’s epic comeback in a 31-27 win in Week 15. The No. 5 playoff seed is what’s at stake for the Bucs. If they win – or if the Los Angeles Rams lose – Tampa Bay will open the first round of the NFC playoffs on the road against the winner of the NFC East division, which will be Washington, Dallas or the New York Giants.
Tampa Bay has won 11 games in a regular season just three other times in franchise history – 1999, 2002 and 2005. The Bucs won their division in each of those years, and Tampa Bay set a franchise record with a 12-4 record in 2002 en route to winning the team’s first and only Super Bowl.
The Bucs are guaranteed to place second in the NFC South this year behind the Saints, who will finish either 11-5 or 12-4, but have the head-t0-head tiebreaker over Tampa Bay as New Orleans, which has now won four straight division titles, swept the series earlier this year.
There won’t be an SR’s Fab 5 column on Friday, which is New Year’s Day, but I’ve extracted my 4 Match-ups To Watch section out of Fab 4 to preview the Bucs vs. Lions contest.
Be sure to read my post-game column, 2-Point Conversion, on Sunday night.
Table of Contents
Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Falcons WLB Foyesade Oluokon
Statistically speaking, it’s been a great year for Oloukon with a team-leading 110 tackles, four forced fumbles, four passes defensed, three sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. He has just as many splash plays as star linebacker Deion Jones does this season, yet Oloukon only has a 57.8 overall grade from Pro Football Focus and a 56.5 coverage grade. When he’s not making splash plays, he’s an average linebacker, evidenced by six tackles against the Bucs the first time around, and allowing six catches for 74 yards versus Tampa Bay – second only to the 147 yards and nine catches that rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell surrendered. Oluokon making a big play or two is paramount if the Falcons have any chance of upsetting the Bucs.
Coming off a two-touchdown performance in Detroit, Gronkowski is trying to stay hot heading into the playoffs. He was held to just three catches for 29 yards in the Week 15 game at Atlanta and earned a 58.9 overall PFF grade, which is much lower than his 72.2 season grade. Gronkowski has seven touchdowns this season, including three in the last three weeks. If Bucs quarterback Tom Brady can thread the needle and keep the ball away from Oluokon, who had a goal line interception against Patrick Mahomes last week, Gronkowski could have a big day against the Falcons defense. ADVANTAGE: Push
Bucs QB Tom Brady vs. Falcons MLB Deion Jones
Jones had quite a game against Brady and the Bucs in Week 15, recording 10 tackles and a sack, while giving up just two catches for 21 yards in the passing game. Jones is the second-leading tackler on the Falcons with 102 stops, six pass break-ups, a team-high 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a defensive touchdown on the year. Jones is an all-around dangerous defender because he’s a capable blitzer, a sure tackler and sound in pass coverage. He’s earned a 73.9 overall PFF grade this year and has become a Pro Bowl-caliber defender with his size and instincts.
Brady has been on fire since the bye week, throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the three previous games, while throwing eight TDs and seven INTs in the four previous games when Tampa Bay went 1-3. Brady passed for 390 yards and two touchdowns in the Bucs’ 31-27 comeback win at Atlanta in Week 15, leading the team to 31 second half points to stun the Falcons. Brady must outwit Jones at the line of scrimmage pre-snap and then avoid him at all costs after the snap. If he does that, the Bucs should be 11-5 come 4:00 p.m. ET. ADVANTAGE: Brady
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting vs. Falcons WR Calvin Ridley
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will try to match up Ridley in the slot as much as possible against Murphy-Bunting on Sunday. Ridley, who is the top-graded Atlanta player on offense with an 88.1 overall grade, has a career-high 82 catches for 1,322 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Ridley scorched the Bucs in Week 15 with a season-high 10 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown. While he is effective from anywhere on the field – outside or in the slot – look for Ridley to see plenty of action inside as the Falcons will try to get this match-up as often as possible on Sunday.
Murphy-Bunting allowed nine catches for 131 yards and two TDs in the Week 15 win over the Falcons, surrendering four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown to Ridley. PFF gave him a 40.7 overall grade and a 36.4 coverage grade against Ridley and the Falcons. Those grades aren’t far off from his PFF season grades of 51.2 overall and 49 in coverage. It will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Todd Bowles uses Ross Cockrell more in the slot, considering he fared better against the Falcons, earning a 75.7 overall PFF grade and a 76.1 coverage grade. ADVANTAGE: Ridley
Bucs ILB Devin White vs. Falcons LG James Carpenter
Carpenter struggled mightily versus White and the Bucs in the team’s Week 15 match-up, allowing three pressures and a sack while earning a 43.1 overall grade and a 23.1 run blocking grade. His 60.7 pass blocking grade was the worst of the Falcons’ five offensive lineman that day. Carpenter has been dealing with a groin injury and missed last week’s game against Kansas City, but practiced this week and is expected to start unless the injury flares up again.
White gave up six catches for 55 yards in Atlanta, but also broke up two passes. He had an 80.7 overall PFF grade, including a 70.1 pass rush grade as he recorded three sacks of Matt Ryan, which matched his career high. White and the Bucs’ front seven have been effective in stopping the run this year as the No. 1-ranked rushing defense. The Falcons gained just 37 yards on the ground on 13 carries in the Week 15 meeting, and White was a big factor with 12 tackles. Expect Bowles to use White on some blitzes up the middle, targeting the injured Carpenter, as Tampa Bay’s middle linebacker needs just one more sack to reach double-digits this year. ADVANTAGE: White