Thanksgiving week in the NFL marks a time where players, coaches and fans give thanks to their family, friends and the playoff race. At this point in the season, the AFC has much more disparity than the NFC. Therefore, the playoff and wildcard races are much more intriguing in the NFC. This week, the 9-1 Falcons will visit the 6-4 Buccaneers for a division rivalry game. Other than the Texans, there aren’t any hotter teams in the NFL than these two NFC South contenders. The Buccaneers will look to keep their four-game winning streak alive as the Falcons attempt to start a new streak of their own.
Four weeks into the season the NFC South had a combined record of 6-10, with Atlanta holding four of those wins. The Panthers and Buccaneers were 1-3 and the Saints were a surprising 0-4. Since then, the teams are a combined 16-8 (15-3 excluding Carolina). Outside of the Panthers’ struggles, the division is living up to the preseason expectations. Matt Ryan, despite the five-interception game last week, is playing the role of an MVP quarterback. Josh Freeman is proving that his sophomore slump was just that and nothing more (or less). And Drew Brees is, well, Drew Brees. He’s consistently putting the team on his back, utilizing whoever he has on the field, moving the ball with ease. In the past few weeks the Saints have found their running game, and their defense is looking better than the worst NFL defense ever - if that’s possible.
What does this all mean for the ramifications of the game this Sunday? Not only do the Buccaneers need a win to stay in the divisional race; they need a win to secure a chance at a wild card spot. New Orleans is 5-1 in their last six games and we can safely assume they are not going away. Green Bay and Chicago are locked up at 7-3 atop the NFC North and Minnesota is hot on their tail at 6-4. Another team that sits at 6-4 is the Seattle Seahawks, who are taking the term “home-field advantage” to a whole new level. Excluding the Cowboys, for reasons recognized by all, there are five teams, including Tampa Bay, fighting for the two wild card spots.
Each team’s strengths play into their opponent’s weaknesses. This makes for an intriguing matchup. The Buccaneers have excelled in the running game, especially of late, as rookie Doug Martin is proving to be a feature back in the NFL. The Buccaneers come into this game with the 1st ranked rushing defense in the league going against the 28th ranked rushing offense, led by an aging veteran in Michael Turner, who seems to be wearing down by each down he plays. On the contrary, the Falcons boast the 3rd best passing offense in the league going against the league’s worst passing defense, giving up 312 yards per contest.
This game has all the makings of a shootout between two of the league’s best young quarterbacks. Now with Vincent Jackson at his disposal, Freeman has a deep-threat to stretch the field and open up the middle for Mike Williams, who coincided with Freeman in a sophomore slump. Matt Ryan has been electric for most of the year and much of that has to do with his two stud receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Jones has been sidelined with a bad ankle and is questionable for the game this Sunday. If Jones does end up playing, you can lock him into a limited snap count and usage mainly as a decoy.
The NFL has scheduled a plethora of meaningful games this week. Some games are important for pride, some for standings and some just for hope (See, Panthers vs. Eagles and Titans vs. Jaguars). The Falcons vs. Buccaneers has ramifications on many levels and shouldn’t be neglected by NFL viewers. Look for the Bucs to come out with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
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