A late-season divisional showdown hits national television on Monday night when the Atlanta Falcons travel to Tampa Bay to face the last-place Buccaneers. While the rest of the NFC South jockeys for playoff positioning, the Buccaneers -- preseason sweetheart picks to make the leap into the postseason -- are just trying to win a game.
Questions swirl around head coach Dirk Koetter in what has become a massive disappointment of a season. The campaign began with a publicized training camp (thanks to HBO's and NFL Films' Hard Knocks) and quickly unraveled after a 2-1 start. Since Tampa Bay's thrilling win over the New York Giants in Week 3, the Buccaneers have gone 2-8. In a season that will be remembered for Jameis Winston's laughable pregame speech eating of a W, the Buccaneers have struggled mightily to actually secure one.
Atlanta, meanwhile, can give itself a one-game cushion in the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC with a win over the Buccaneers. The Falcons have won four of their last five and have proven they can get the job done in close contests, taking three-point wins over Seattle and NFC South rival New Orleans during that stretch. They'll need the win to keep the outside hopefuls (Dallas, Seattle) from breaking into the playoff picture with only two weeks left to play after Monday.
Here's what to watch for in Monday Night Football.
- Can Tampa Bay keep Atlanta under 20 points? The Buccaneers rank 11th in the league in points allowed per game (24), but 31st in total yards allowed per game (389.3). That would suggest Tampa Bay stiffens inside the red zone, but against this Atlanta team, it will be especially difficult to hold the Falcons to field goals. The Falcons have posted 20 or more points in four of their last five games, and not coincidentally, they've won all of those contests. It would seem, then, that the Bucs' best chance is to keep them below that number -- especially with an offense that has exceeded 20 just twice in its last seven games (the Buccaneers also reached exactly 20 points twice in that span).
- We used this point last week in discussing the Miami-New England matchup -- and the Dolphins proved us wrong by upsetting the Patriots and playing with plenty of effort -- but it's especially valid to bring up in this situation. The Buccaneers have been a listless ship for quite some time now and the collective eye remains trained on Koetter, who was elevated to the position after in-house tension, but could fall victim to what promoted him. Tampa Bay has regressed tremendously in Koetter's second season at the helm, with much of the struggles centered on Winston, who's also taken a step back in 2017. Jobs are at stake, but how hard will the Bucs play for Koetter in the final three weeks? We're seeing a rebound in Denver that will likely save the job of Vance Joseph -- will something similar happen in Tampa? An upset win over the Falcons sure would help Koetter's case.
- Will Atlanta seize the moment? The Falcons' 2017 has been a roller coaster with each stop bringing the endless stream of questions about the impact of their Super Bowl LI collapse. We've just about moved on from those questions (finally), but Atlanta still isn't out of the woods when it comes to the Super Bowl loss hangover. A win moves the Falcons a step closer to the postseason, but a loss would be much more damaging. Atlanta has a lot of momentum in its favor, especially after last week's exciting win over the Saints. The Falcons have a date with them next week in a three-game finish that is played exclusively against division rivals. These are all must-wins.