Can anyone stop the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? They pulled off the unlikely comeback in Week 11 vs the Panthers, but they face a much stiffer test when the NFC leading Atlanta Falcons come to town. Let's take a closer look at why I think the Bucs win streak comes to an end this Sunday.
There's not a lot to report on this point spread. Last week Vegas had the Falcons favored by one point, but after the weekend it's re-opened as "pick em" (odds from SBRforum). In this specific match-up a fair argument can be made for either team so I understand throwing the game up as a pick em, but I see the advantages in favor of the Falcons that put them over the top.
These two teams are getting the most attention in the polls so far this week and there's also been a lot of debate about where they should be on the power rankings. Football Outsiders have them side by side each other at 12th and 13th respectively. Meanwhile, the national media ESPN boys have the Falcons 2nd and the Bucs 10th.
If this isn't a perfect example as to why you should ignore the media when it comes to NFL analysis, I don't know what is. Unless you have a scouting background or spend copious amounts of time in the film room (Jaworski/Mayock), I'm not interested.
So why would I pick the Falcons if FO have them ranked evenly in the efficiency rankings? The answer is pretty simple, but maybe not so obvious. While some handicappers blindly use power rankings to create their own numbers, I prefer to breakdown specific matchups to see if one team is poised to exploit the others weaknesses, regardless of power ranking.
Run Forrest Run
If you voted for the Bucs to win this game, no one is going to blame you. They've been on fire lately. Josh Freeman, Vincent Jackson, and Doug Martin might not be Aiken, Irvin, and Smith, but don't tell Tampa Bay fans that. Martin is on a tear and now he must be licking his chops going up against a struggling run defense. Without Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons are trying to slow down runners with a mix of looks - none of which are working particularly well.
This should open things up for Freeman in the passing game, but the question is whether or not he can do it against a good pass defense? The Bucs offense have benefited from a pretty soft schedule this year. They are great once they get inside the red zone, but well below average driving down the field. Atlanta's D ranks near the middle of the pack in drive success rate, so Tampa will have to earn it on Sunday.
On the other side, the Bucs rank at the very top of the NFL with their run defense. If Michael Turner was hoping to get back on track, this isn't the game. With Tampa controlling the clock on both sides of the ball, I can understand those of you going with the home team.
Two key guys for the Falcons are banged up in Asante Samuel and Julio Jones. Mike Smith wasn't very forthcoming when he updated their statuses on Tuesday, but Jones isn't the only threat in this Atlanta passing game.
Throw away the game Matt Ryan had vs the Cardinals because those sorts of games happen from time to time. The Cardinals defense is also a top 10 unit, so give them some credit as well. Ryan is ranks 6th in QB efficiency, but he was even higher before he put up a stinker last week.
Part of the reason why I like Ryan to bounce back is because the Bucs secondary seems to get torched every other weekend. Their defense isn't that bad overall, but they are trending downwards despite the wins. Now they have the task of slowing down one of the best passing attacks in the NFL. Jones has obviously been a big part of that, but Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez can't be overlooked either. In fact, White is currently ranked 2nd in the NFL at WR, and Gonzalez ranks 2nd in the league at TE.
Over the last couple of years, I've gradually given more weight to passing over rushing in my system due to the increasing importance on an air attack. The Falcons have the edge in this area on both sides of the ball. It also explains why Atlanta rank near the top offensively in drive success rate and third down efficiency, despite a poor run game.
Vegas have been inflating the point spread for the Falcons when they play at home. Part of this is thanks to their record and part of it is due to Matt Ryan's home success. This inflation explains why they are winning (5-0), but not covering the spread (2-3) inside the dome.
However, on the road the Falcons are consistently getting graded as short favorites. The books have no choice but to factor in home field advantage and put up a reasonable number. Thus far, the Falcons are 4-1 ATS on the road this year. In fact, since Week 3 home teams are 45-81-1 ATS. I expect Atlanta to add to that total on Sunday with their advantages in the air.
NFL Pick: ATL PK.