A loss by the Bucs would put them at 0-3, with all three losses in the conference. (And two in the division.) The last team to make the playoffs after starting the season 0-3 was the 1998 Buffalo Bills. So do the Bucs have any chance? Here's what to watch for in Thursday's game:
- The Falcons talked all offseason about getting "tougher" on defense. They have given up exactly 472 yards in back-to-back weeks, dead last in the NFL. (At least they are consistent.) The Falcons bulked up in free agency to stop the run, but they have been pushed around in consecutive weeks by New Orleans and Cincinnati. Rookie "Hard Knocks" star Ra'Shede Hageman has struggled during the rare times he's been on the field. Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux have not played well against the run.
- The Bucs, meanwhile, are coming off an impressive 144-yard rushing performance by Bobby Rainey. The diminutive back had big holes to run through against St. Louis last week. Doug Martin (knee) is questionable to play, but it sounds like he'll return to the lineup. The Buccaneers have been very conservative the last two weeks and would love to adopt a run-first approach.
- Perhaps Lovie Smith keeps running in clear passing situations because he doesn't trust Josh McCown. The Bucs' new starting quarterback didn't play poorly overall against St. Louis; he just wasn't asked to do much. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to just throw the ball up when he's under pressure. That's led to two of the ugliestinterceptions by any quarterback all season.
- The good news for McCown and Smith this week: Atlanta's pass rush is among the worst in the league. They are the only team without a sack through two weeks.
- Few teams have been as decimated by injuries as Tampa. They won't get defensive end Adrian Clayborn or cornerback Mike Jenkins back all season and rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins is out this week. But it sounds like they will get Martin, defensive end Michael Johnson, and possibly their best player Gerald McCoy, who is questionable with a broken hand, back for Thursday. This is a team that is supposed to be built on a strong defense, but they look vanilla so far because of all the injuries.
- Matt Ryan's Week 1 performance against New Orleans was the best game by any quarterback through two weeks (and perhaps the best game of Ryan's career). Even in the team's Week 2 dud in Cincinnati, Ryan made more plays on the run. He looks more explosive as an athlete and has evaded defenders inside and outside the pocket more than we remember in the past.
- Ryan's protection failed him in Cincinnati, especially right tackle Lamar Holmes. It sounds like rookie top-10 pick Jake Matthews will return for this game at left tackle, but Holmes remains the starter on the right side. That could be a huge problem for Ryan, who struggled in catch-up mode against the Bengals. The Falcons failed to give Ryan enough protection to go deep much.
- Roddy White is questionable for Thursday, but the Falcons depth at wide receiver could survive with or without him. Devin Hester is a legitimate option at receiver, and Harry Douglas is a solid piece of the puzzle. The Falcons, like many dome teams, play a lot differently at home. Their offensive depth should be too much for the Buccaneers to handle.