Let's face it — this is not the usual NFC South Division. This is not the same division that has produced a NFC Championship game participant every year since the division was created in 2002. Yes, they're the only division in football to do so.
This is a dreadfully mediocre division this year. Most of the NFC is mediocre, outside of Dallas and Green Bay. How else to explain that the division's top team — Tampa Bay — is only two games ahead of the division's worst team — Atlanta.
So the Falcons play the Buccaneers this Sunday with upset on their mind. A win brings them to 4-6. More importantly, it brings them within one game of the top of the division.
That has to be one of the most absurd things I've heard in some time. The Falcons were given up for dead three weeks ago. They released one of their best defensive players in Grady Jackson. There's the whole Michael Vick thing. And Joey Harrington is their starting quarterback (although maybe not Sunday). They should be planning to draft Darren McFadden or Brian Brohm.
Instead, they're planning to upset the Bucs because they have hope, derived from a two-game winning streak and Tampa Bay's inability to produce wins on the road. They're 1-3 this season. The Bucs should be 6-3 at worst at this point. Instead they face a huge game Sunday.
Yes, every game is huge, Jon Gruden says. He said it Wednesday with a little disdain, actually. What makes this game more important than, say, Arizona two weeks ago?
Do you want to be the head coach that has to game plan for the Washington Redskins knowing you would likely be tied with at least one division rival, and only one game ahead of the division's worst team, if you lose on Sunday?
Didn't think so. Don't fool yourself. This is a big game. This game will set the tone for the rest of the Bucs' season. If they are a playoff team, they'll show everyone a sign on Sunday.
I watched that Tampa Bay-Arizona game again recently and marveled at the time of possession in that game. The Buccaneers just dominated the Cardinals at the line of scrimmage. Sure, they didn't cash in nearly as much as they should have in the way of points. But the Cardinals can't score if they can't get the ball right? Well, they can, just not as much. It's not like they have Antonio Cromartie.
I think time of possession will be a big key on Sunday. The Falcons want to run the football and control the game. The Bucs will want to do the same thing because the Falcons' secondary is pretty good and liable to be a nuisance to wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard.
They should have Michael Pittman back, which will allow Earnest Graham to get some extra rest during the game. The Bucs now have three viable backs with three very different skill sets to play with, and Gruden will. Graham joked that Gruden would probably find a formation that would utilize all three backs at the same time.
But back to the Falcons for a minute. Their run defense has certainly improved with the return of Rod Coleman to the middle, but how much? Teams are still productive against Atlanta on the ground. It's certainly not at the clip it was earlier this season when Minnesota, Jacksonville and Carolina pounded them for back-to-back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. But the Falcons have allowed 188, 91, 116 and 90 rushing yards the past four games, part of the reason they're ranked No. 23 against the run, allowing 121 yards per game.
The Bucs are averaging 115 yards per game on the ground. The offensive line, as young as it is, has come together in recent weeks. Also remember that the Bucs have improved their ground game in Pittman's absence, gaining 30, 124, 136 and 162 yards in the four games since Graham became the starter. Graham has handled nearly 90 percent of the touches in that span. To me, all of that adds up to the Bucs pounding away with the run to control this game, giving the Falcons fewer offensive opportunities, which usually means a larger reliance on the passing game, where the Falcons are in flux.
OTHER POINTS TO PONDER
THE DYNAMIC DINOSAURS: The Buccaneers have a shot at having two 1,000-yard receivers this season. Through nine games, Joey Galloway has 648 yards receiving and Ike Hilliard has 548 yards receiving. If they continue on that pace, Galloway would finish with 1,152 yards and Hilliard would finish with 974 yards. Hilliard would need a little help to get there. But the Bucs have never had two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. Galloway has five career 1,000-yard seasons (the last two in Tampa Bay). Hilliard, however, has never had one.
BIG TIME AT THE BIRDS: It's been a while since Jeff Garcia played the Atlanta Falcons. You have to go back to his days in San Francisco and the old NFC West rivalries before realignment. But against those middling Falcons defenses and on the road, Garcia soared. In his three meetings with Atlanta at the Georgia Dome from 1999-01, he's thrown for 958 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception. He had two things going for him in those days — a middling Falcons defense and Terrell Owens. I doubt the Cowboys will let the Bucs borrow Owens for the weekend.
WATCH OUT FOR THE BYE: Plenty of people are trumpeting Jon Gruden's 6-3 record after the bye week. Don't overlook the fact that the Bucs have lost three of their past four post-bye week games, and that two years ago it came against San Francisco on the road. The Bucs should have won that game. They should win on Sunday. Anyone see any parallels?
BUCS LT DONALD PENN VS. FALCONS DE JOHN ABRAHAM: Abraham has notched five of his six sacks his season at the Georgia Dome. Penn said he's the biggest challenge he's faced since Indy's Dwight Freeney. This is a benchmark game for Penn's progress this season.
BUCS WR IKE HILLIARD VS. FALCONS S LAWYER MILLOY: Hilliard called Milloy someone he hates playing against. Milloy's hard-hitting ability is the reason why. Expect Hilliard to go across the middle a lot on Sunday — and for Milloy to greet him.
BUCS RB MICHAEL PITTMAN VS. FALCONS LB KEITH BROOKING: "The Joker" should be back this Sunday, bringing his pass-catching ability with him. Brooking will likely have to pick up Pittman in coverage, and he was burned a couple of times by the Panthers last Sunday. Keep an eye on both of them.
I make five offensive predictions each week. Check back on Monday to see if I'm right.
1. Tampa Bay will rush for 125 yards or more on Sunday. Despite the rejuvenated Falcons defense, the Bucs are coming off a bye and Gruden's record suggests they'll be well-prepared. Plus, Pittman's return will give them more options — and a fresher Earnest Graham.
2. Jeff Garcia will not throw an interception or commit a fumble. He said it himself Wednesday — this team can't afford to make two or three mistakes. So I'll give Garcia the benefit of the doubt against a team he's had success against.
3. Michael Clayton will go without a catch. The fourth-year WR's return will likely not have a huge impact on the offense.
4. The Bucs will convert better than 50 percent of the third-down opportunities. The Bucs did this well against Arizona, and in doing so dominated time of possession. I think there's a solid chance the Bucs can do it again because the Falcons' defense is not particularly good on third down.
5. The Bucs offensive line will allow fewer than two sacks. This young group made strides the last two weeks before the bye, and I think there will be some carryover.
There's very little secret on offense why the Falcons have won their past two games. May I re-introduce you to Warrick Dunn.
He became almost forgotten on the NFL landscape due to the combination of the Vick saga, a training camp lost to back surgery and backup Jerious Norwood. But Dunn is surging back at just the right time.
He's rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games. Dunn has almost 60 carries during that span. And, no shock here, the Falcons won the time of possession battle in both games.
Yes, they went to Dunn more often out of necessity, thanks to Norwood's injury. But by getting back to the run the Falcons got back to what they do best, even behind a dinged-up offensive line. This has always been a running football team and the fact that head coach Bobby Petrino has embraced that is good news for the Falcons.
It's also what the Bucs must be most concerned about on Sunday. Tampa Bay's rushing defense is ranked only 18th in the NFL, but it's coming off allowing only 23 yards to Arizona. The Bucs made an obvious commitment to stopping the run that day and it worked.
It probably wouldn't hurt to do it again on Sunday. Tampa Bay had allowed at least 90 yards rushing in every game before the Cardinals contest. Dunn has rushed for at least 90 yards in each of his last two games. The Falcons have won their last two games.
Get the picture? Limit the run and put the game in the quarterback's hands, because the Bucs are ranked No. 3 in pass defense — thanks mostly to a potent secondary — and Harrington is liable to make more mistakes than Dunn. I think Harrington should start, but it now appears as if Byron Leftwich will. He practiced fully on Friday. I think this rather abrupt change at quarterback could have consequences for the Falcons, which is why the Bucs must stop the run first.
OTHER POINTS TO PONDER
TURNOVERS: We've made a big deal out of the Bucs' defensive resurgence, but there's a trend you should be aware of. The Bucs have only forced two turnovers in their last three games, after forcing 12 in the first six. Tampa Bay went 4-2 in their first six games and 1-2 in their last three. Tampa Bay needs to force turnovers defensively to change the tempo of the game. The Falcons protect the football well. They've only committed nine turnovers this year.
WATCH ALGE: There was a report earlier this week that the Bucs are playing more Cover 4 defense. That's a scheme that divides the deep part of the field into quarters, and the cornerbacks and safeties each patrol a particular quarter. The formation is supposed to help on deep routes. If the Bucs use the formation, then watch Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler. He's capable of exploiting the middle of the field between the linebackers and secondary and making receptions in chunks of 20 or 30 yards. That's exactly what he did last week when he caught the game-winning touchdown pass against Carolina.
CHUKWURAH'S IMPACT? I'm not sure that he'll have one on Sunday. We haven't seen him play in more than a month, so there's no way to tell how the Bucs will use him. I think he'll see time on third downs on both sides of the defensive line, plus on special teams. But given his injury problems and limited production when he's healthy, he's emerged as one of the real disappointments of the Bucs' offseason. Defensive line coach Larry Coyer had a lot to do with brining Chukwurah here from their days in Denver. Unless he summons something we haven't seen in these final seven games, I would consider his first season in Tampa Bay a wash. There's no need to cut him, though. At five years and $5.5 million, he's cheap depth.
FALCONS RB WARRICK DUNN VS. BUCS MLB BARRETT RUUD: Dunn needs 58 yards to eclipse the 10,000-yard mark and I'm sure he'd love to do it against his former team. He's rushed for nearly 200 yards in two games and Ruud will be the chief enforcer in keeping Dunn away from the 100-yard mark.
FALCONS LT TODD WEINER VS. BUCS RDE GAINES ADAMS: Wiener is in his second game back from an injury that forced him to miss three games. This guy actually handled Carolina's Julius Peppers by himself earlier this year. The Falcons probably won't feel the need to double-team Adams, so if he can beat Weiner one-on-one he could have a nice game. Or he could disappear.
FALCONS WR RODDY WHITE VS. BUCS CB RONDE BARBER: White is beginning to show some of the promise that made him a first-round pick. He's caught 17 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown in his last three games. Barber needs an interception to become the Bucs' all-time interception leader.
1. Warrick Dunn will get his milestone, but not much else. I see the Bucs defense limiting him to 80 yards or less rushing. That might be enough, however to move the chains for the Falcons.
2. Byron Leftwich will start and play with inconsistency. He hasn't taken a live snap in close to a month, spending most of his time rehabbing his injured ankle. He also split first-team reps. Quinn Gray proved you can beat the Bucs with only a smattering of passes. But I think the Falcons will be tempted to try and use Leftwich's big arm and it'll backfire on them.
3. Alge Crumpler will have a good day. He should be stronger in his second game back from injury. I see five catches on Sunday as the Bucs lock down on the wide receivers.
4. But the Bucs will force the Falcons into mistakes and short drives. The Falcons will have a statistically successful game. But I think the Bucs will force a couple of key turnovers and limit the Falcons' ability to move the football all afternoon. The Falcons will get their yardage in chunks, but commit too many mistakes. I see three turnovers in all.
5. Today's the day for Ronde Barber. He'll finally get that 31st career pick on Sunday.
This will be a weird game because I see the Falcons have some success on Sunday. They're a better team that you think they are and they possess the ball well. But the Buccaneers, defensively, are better than Atlanta's last three opponents. The Falcons struggle against teams with good defenses that can force turnovers. I think that may be the difference. Tampa Bay will hang onto the football, force two or three key turnovers and cash in with scores. This is a game the Buccaneers should and must win if they expect to make the postseason. Bucs 21, Falcons 13.
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.