The Tampa Bay Buccaneers own the NFL’s second-longest active playoff drought, which stands at 12 seasons. But that drought can end on Sunday if they beat the Atlanta Falcons, although they will also need a tie between the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings in order to officially clinch a spot in the postseason. But before worrying about other teams, the 8-5 Buccaneers will need to defeat the 4-9 Falcons, which will also give Tampa Bay its second straight win.
The Buccaneers snapped out of a two-game losing streak when they beat the Vikings in Week 14, 26-14, to strengthen their playoff hopes. After throwing a combined five touchdowns and four interceptions in Tampa Bay’s back-to-back losses to the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Tom Brady returned to form and passed for two touchdowns and had no picks against the Vikings. The Buccaneers now hold the sixth playoff spot in the NFC and can come closer to their first playoff appearance since the 2007 Wild Card round with a win over Atlanta.
The Falcons, meanwhile, suffered a narrow 20-17 defeat to Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 14 and have lost back-to-back games by a combined eight points. But Atlanta will be no pushovers after compiling a respectable 4-4 record since the firing of head coach Dan Quinn after a disastrous 0-5 start. The Buccaneers play the Falcons in two of their last three games, and a win on Sunday would put them on the cusp of the playoffs.
Here are four predictions when the Buccaneers visit the Falcons.
1. Tom Brady passes for 3 TDs
Brady has historically done well against the Falcons, as he owns an all-time 6-0 record against Atlanta, including the New England Patriots’ historic 34-28 comeback in Super Bowl LI. The six-time Super Bowl champion also seems to have momentum on his side after a solid performance against the Vikings in Week 14, where he completed 15 of 23 passes for 196 yards with two scores and no turnovers. But the 43-year-old passer isn’t taking any chances, even against a Falcons team that is merely playing for pride at this point.
“Wherever that takes us, it takes us. It will be up to us to earn it,” Brady said, per ESPN. “No one is going to give you anything in the NFL. It’s too competitive, it’s too tough. Every week is a challenge.”
On Sunday, the three-time MVP will face a defense that gives up an average of 390.6 yards per game that ranks 28th in the NFL and 281.8 passing yards per game, which ranks 30th. Brady has had five games this season where he had at least three touchdown passes, the last coming in Tampa Bay’s Week 12 loss to Kansas City. But against a porous Falcons defense and with a spot in the playoffs within his reach, the 14-time Pro Bowler should be at his best and will find his receivers early and often and will have one of his better games of the season.
2. Chris Godwin bounces back and has a big game
With the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Scotty Miller, the Buccaneers have one of the league’s best receiving corps. On Sunday, however, Godwin had a subpar performance in the win over Minnesota, finishing with just three targets, two receptions, and 25 receiving yards, which are all season lows. A year after finishing the season with nine touchdowns and 1333 receiving yards on 86 receptions, the 24-year-old Godwin has just three scores and 587 receiving yards on 51 receptions, in part because of the addition of the likes of Brown and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
But with Brady facing one of the league’s worst pass defenses, the 2019 Pro Bowler should have a better performance against the Falcons than he did in Week 14. He hasn’t had a 100-yard game this season and has not found the end zone since Week 11, but after a subpar game, he should bounce back with one of his better games this season.
3. The defense will sack Matt Ryan at least 3 times
Despite the absence of wide receiver Julio Jones, who will miss Sunday’s game due to a hamstring injury, the Buccaneers defense will still have to worry about the Falcons’ other offensive weapons, such as Calvin Ridley, who has emerged as Atlanta’s top receiver this season with a team-high 1029 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. The key to stopping the Falcons offense is to get to quarterback Matt Ryan, who has passed for 3,660 yards (sixth in the NFL) and 19 touchdowns this season.
The 35-year-old Ryan has been sacked 33 times this season, the sixth-most number among quarterbacks. The Buccaneers defense, meanwhile, has tallied 40 sacks this season, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, and Devin White all recording at least five sacks. Pierre-Paul and Barrett in particular have been disruptive against opposing quarterbacks, with 9.5 and eight sacks this season, placing them at seventh and 10th in the league, respectively.
Ryan has been sacked at least three times in just three of the Falcons’ 13 games, two of them coming against the New Orleans Saints, including their loss in Week 11 where he was sacked eight times. The Buccaneers, with several players capable of getting to opposing quarterbacks to disrupt their offense, are more than capable of joining that list.
4. The Buccaneers pick up the win to move on the cusp of the playoffs
While there is no assurance that the Bears and and Vikings will play into a tie on Sunday, since only game this season has so far ended in a tie (a Week 3 meeting between the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles that ended in a 23-23 deadlock). But a win over the Falcons will go a long way towards ending the Buccaneers’ playoff drought while also giving them some much-needed momentum heading into the final stretch of the regular season.
With Brady playing better and facing a defense that has mostly struggled against the pass this season, the 43-year-old signal-caller should be able to connect and find his receivers in the end zone. The defense, and Pierre-Paul and Barrett in particular, who have combined for five sacks in Tampa Bay’s last two games, should make their presence felt and disrupt Ryan and the Atlanta offense.
With head coach Bruce Arians’ team playing well on both ends, the Buccaneers should secure their ninth win of the season against five losses, which gives them a 99 percent chance of making the postseason, according to The New York Times, and moves closer to ending a years-long record for playoff futility.