Throughout Tampa Bay's lack of success on the road this season, one thing stands out — turnovers.
As in critical mistakes committed by the Buccaneers away from home.
As Tampa Bay (5-4) enters today's game at Atlanta (3-6), the Buccaneers will face a Falcons team with the third-best turnover ratio in the NFL — plus-9.
The Falcons have forced 18 turnovers this season, half of them at the Georgia Dome.
And while Tampa Bay has only committed six road turnovers this season, this isn't the time to start making mistakes.
"I think when you look at the three losses on the road, two of the three we turned the ball over and we can't afford to do that in tough ball games," Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia said.
Some of those road turnovers have been game-changers, too. Consider this:
n At Seattle in the season opener, running back Earnest Graham fumbled away a reception at the Seattle 21 with 3:49 left in the game, as the Buccaneers were driving to cut the Seahawks' lead to potentially seven points.
n In Detroit, the Lions blocked Josh Bidwell's first punt of the game, which led to a field goal. Later, Garcia's two fumbles — one of which came at the Lions 1 — both led to touchdowns in a 23-16 loss.
And the Indianapolis loss? Well, that had more to do with a certain quarterback.
"Peyton Manning had a lot to do with one of those losses," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.
It's not as if the Buccaneers are a turnover-happy team. They've committed only 11 this year, fifth-best in the NFL. But their turnover ratio is only plus-3. If the defense isn't giving the offense as many opportunities of turnovers as the other team, it reduces the Bucs' margin of error on offense.
In other words, every mistake becomes bigger.
"We're not the team that can overcome two or three turnovers in a game, so we have to eliminate them," Garcia said.
Cold numbers back Garcia up. When the Bucs have a positive turnover ratio, they're 5-0. When they have an equal or negative turnover ratio, they're 0-4.
"Turnovers always are a big reason why you don't win," Gruden said.
So ball possession is a key against a Falcons defense that is getting better after a slow start. The Falcons are ranked No. 16 in the NFL in total defense, giving up 323.7 yards per game.
That ranking has shot up from No. 24 before the Falcons' bye week three weeks ago.
It's no coincidence that the defensive improvement began when under tackle Rod Coleman returned from injury against the New York Giants on Oct. 15. He missed the season's first five games. But he's quickly improved in new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme, as he sacked Carolina quarterback Vinny Testaverde twice last Sunday.
"You put that together with the job Zimmer and his staff have done with pressure, (and) it's been very effective for them," Gruden said.
It's been effective enough the past two weeks for the Falcons to string together their first winning streak of the season, beating San Francisco and Carolina. The Falcons enter today's game an unlikely two games back of Tampa Bay for first place in the NFC South. A victory today would allow the Falcons — an afterthought at 1-6 before their bye three weeks ago — to crawl within a game of first place in the division.
Given the unpredictable nature of this rivalry, Tampa Bay can either walk away from Atlanta all but eliminating the Falcons from playoff contention or allowing them to become players in an already-tight divisional race.
And that will hinge on how well the Buccaneers hang onto the football today.
"You see an opportunity there," Atlanta head coach Bobby Petrino said. "We have to take care of business. This is a big weekend for everybody."
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.