The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the biggest surprises this season. Greg Schiano has done a great job in his first season as head coach after leaving Rutgers. It's hard to find a coach outside of Jim Harbaugh who has done this good of job in his first year after leaving college.
The (6-4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have their hands full against the (9-1) Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
This is a huge game for both squads.
With a win, Atlanta will have a four game lead in the NFC South with five games left.
More importantly, Atlanta will be that much closer to winning the NFC and have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Falcons need home-field in the playoffs if they want to be serious contenders to make the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay is fighting for their playoff hopes. If the postseason started today, they would be out. Luckily, there are six weeks left in the regular season and they are tied with Seattle for the sixth and final playoff spot.
If the Buccaneers can beat the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium they will be two back of Atlanta and an NFC South crown would not be out the picture. They are trying to win the NFC South for the fourth time in franchise history and it would be the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Tampa Bay has been one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winners of four in a row, and if they can win their fifth straight it would be the first time in a decade. The last time they won five in a row they held up the Lombardi Trophy.
Atlanta has been very inconsistent of late, but they still find ways to pull games out at the end. The Falcons have been flirting with disaster for over a month now, six of their last seven games have been decided by one score.
I expect this to be a very close game and pay close attention to these three keys to play a significant role in determining the outcome.
DOUG MARTIN vs. ATLANTA RUSH DEFENSE
The Atlanta Falcons have struggled to stuff the running game. They enter Sunday's game ranked 26th in rush defense. They allow 130.5 yards/game and have not shown signs of getting better.
Doug Martin fantasy owners are licking their chops. "The Dougernaut" enters week 12 fourth in the NFL in rushing and has been destroying defenses during the Buc's four-game winning streak. He is second in rushing over the last four weeks averaging 148 yards/game and has six total touchdowns.
The rookie running back from Boise State has been one of the best rookies in the NFL, and is giving Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III a run for their money to win "Offensive Rookie of the Year."
Doug Martin joins Adrian Peterson as the only rookie running back to rush for 1,000 yards in their first 10 games since 2000. Not bad when you are the only guy in the same class as AP. (They call them AP classes for a reason.)
If Atlanta wants to pull it out on the road they need to shut down Martin. It has been close to impossible for any defense to slow down the rookie tailback. It has been close to impossible for Atlanta to shut down the running game.
Expect Doug Martin to have a big game on Sunday and break the century mark for the fourth time in five games.
MATT RYAN vs. JOSH FREEMAN
Matt Ryan is coming off one of the worst games of his career. He threw for 300 yards, but had 0 touchdowns and five interceptions. He became the first quarterback to throw 0 TD's and 5 INT's in a win since Bart Starr did it in 1967 for the Green Bay Packers.
Ryan might be coming off a bad game, but he has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. "Matty Ice" has thrown for 3,072 yards and 20 touchdowns this year. Ryan ranks in the top ten among all quarterbacks in passing yards, completion %, touchdowns, passer rating and QBR. The guy is having an outstanding year, and has fallen off as one of the leading candidates for the MVP after his five interception performance, but with a strong last third of the season he can get right back in the mix.
Josh Freeman has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this year, especially of late. Freeman has thrown for 2,505 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Most importantly he has cut down on interceptions. He has thrown seven interceptions which is a major improvement from the 22 he threw in 2011.
Over the last six games Freeman has thrown for 1,725 yards, 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions. During this span he has a remarkable 106.1 passer rating and an NFL-best 8.58 yards per attempt.
If it wasn't for some guy down in Denver, Freeman would have a great chance at winning "Comeback Player of the Year."
Tampa Bay has been one of the most dangerous offense's since October. Tampa Bay is averaging an NFC-best 34.2 points/game and have scored at least 27 points in every game during this span.
The Buccaneers have been one of the best teams at scoring early, their 71 first quarter points are fourth most in the NFL.
It all starts with the quarterback and Josh Freeman has proved all the doubters wrong this year.
Expect a quarterback duel in Tampa on Sunday. Ryan will have a bounce back game against the NFL's worst pass defense. Freeman will match Ryan's performance on Sunday and whatever quarterback wins the turnover battle will have a great chance to get a key divisional victory.
Josh Freeman is looking to change his struggles he has had against Atlanta. He is 1-4 in his last five against Atlanta throwing six touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Matt Ryan has had his struggles at Raymond James Stadium. He is 2-2 with five touchdowns and seven interceptions during his last four games in Tampa.
I think it is safe to say both of these guys won't have these type of performances on Sunday.
JOHN ABRAHAM vs. RONDE BARBER
It has been a struggle for the Buccaneers defense, but Ronde Barber has shown he is no where close to being over the hill. I don't know if it is all the youth around him, but the 37-year old is still playing at a high level.
The 16-year NFL veteran has 54 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one sack this season.
His most important attribute doesn't make it on the stat sheet: leadership.
Rookie's Mark Barron and Lavonte David might have enjoyed their Thanksgiving yesterday, but they should be most thankful for Barber's leadership. They are both having good rookie campaigns. David's 90 tackles lead the team and Barron is third on the team with 57 tackles. The first round pick from Alabama also has an interception and forced fumble this season. If it wasn't for Barber, these two rookies would not be having this much success on the field.
As John Abraham goes, so goes the Atlanta defense. The 13-year veteran has been one of the best pass rushers over his NFL career. His 121 career sacks are 15th in NFL history and tops among all current players. He has had double-digit sacks in six of his previous 12 seasons and is one sack away from having his seventh.
He made the biggest play of the game last Sunday against Arizona. With Atlanta trailing 13-3 in the second quarter, Abraham sacked Ryan Lindley and forced a fumble that Johnathan Babineaux picked up for a 15-yard touchdown return.
His nine sacks this season are tied for sixth most and his four forced fumbles are also tied for sixth most.
It will be crucial for Abraham to get in the backfield and disrupt Josh Freeman. The Buc's have been one of the best in the NFL at protecting the quarterback. Tampa Bay has allowed 14 sacks this season, tied for second best in the NFL.
Whatever NFL veteran has a bigger impact on Sunday they will have a good chance to pull this one out.
This is a huge divisional game and if Atlanta pulls it out they will win the NFC South easily. Tampa Bay is fighting for their playoff hopes, and with a win on Sunday they will have a good chance at pulling out one of the two wild-card spots. They will only be two back of Atlanta in the NFC South with both teams squaring off during the final week of the season. This is by far the most important games for both teams this Sunday.
PREDICTION: TAMPA BAY 34 ATLANTA 31