The Atlanta Falcons are flying high into their Thursday Night Football matchup with their division rivals.
Matt Ryan is having the season of a lifetime, posting career highs in passer rating, passing yards per game and same-sentence mentions with Tom Brady. While Julio Jones remains the go-to fixture in Matty Ice's attack, the Falcons' offense is getting it done with a new cast of stars, including Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper and Tevin Coleman, who's developed into a dual-threat dynamo. Plus, Atlanta has so far avoided the post-undefeated-start collapse that befell last year's team and sits in prime position to take the NFC South and contend in a competitive conference.
But to the same degree that Dan Quinn's team has improved in his second season, Dirk Koetter's Buccaneers have failed to capitalize in his first year at the helm. The former offensive coordinator was supposed to accelerate Jameis Winston's development, but the sophomore QB's progression is stagnant. Decimated by injuries at the running back position, Tampa's offense has been a mixed bag week-to-week. Still, thanks to two straight wins before a loss to Oakland and an opportunistic defense, the Bucs remain firmly in the hunt for a playoff spot, if not the South crown. A victory over Atlanta in front of a national audience would take them to within a half-game of the division lead and send the South into lucid chaos.
Here's what we'll be watching for when the Dirty Birds and Bucs battle it out on Thursday Night Football, set to air exclusively on NFL Network:
- Will anybody run the ball? Should anybody run the ball? Both the Falcons' and Buccaneers' offenses rely more heavily on the pass, and their defenses struggle and are attacked more often through the air. The Raiders fleeced Tampa's secondary for 498 net passing yards in last week's overtime loss; the Bucs gave up two touchdowns for 34-plus yards, including the game-winner. Atlanta surrendered first-career touchdowns to anonymous -- what is a Geronimo Allison? -- and made Aaron Rodgers, who had struggled to complete more than 65 percent of his passes, look like, well, the oldAaron Rodgers. Tevin Coleman's been ruled out and the Bucs are without Jacquizz Rodgers, not to mention they have been without Doug Martin and Charles Sims for some time. All this means we're likely looking at a hot and sweaty shootout on Thursday night.
- What to make of Jameis? The young Buc has been inconsistent through the first half of the season, following up high-wattage outings, like his four-TD game against Atlanta to start the season, with turnover-laden stinkers -- see (or don't watch) Weeks 2 and 4. Winston's completion rate is up just barely over his rookie mark and his predication for taking sacks and throwing interceptions kills drives. But we may see a different Winston on Thursday night. The quarterback is 3-0 against Atlanta (6-14 against all other opponents) and completes seven percent more of his passes versus Quinn's defense. Over the past three weeks, Winston has also played safer football, throwing just one interception to six TDs; his yardage numbers are down, but the Bucs will take scores over yards against a fireball Falcons offense. Which Jameis will we see on TNF? Flip a coin.
- The biggest mismatch of the night is between a potential league MVP and a secondary sadly shamed. As mentioned above, and on all your local sports talk shows, Ryan is a legitimate MVP candidate. The former second-overall pick leads the league in passing (2,636 yds) and is second in passer rating (115.8). He's thrown just four interceptions to his league-leading 19 touchdowns and is keeping Atlanta in games week-to-week when its secondary surrenders big scores. After leading a late game-winning drive against a Green Bay secondary without its top three corners in Week 8, Ryan will be "tasked" with splicing a Tampa Bay defense that ranks 26th in passer rating allowed and 23rd in passing YPG allowed and, oh, just gave up a franchise-worst 626 total yards to the Raiders at home. Ryan may be hampered by the potential absence or limiting of Julio Jones, who is struggling with a foot injury and was limited in practice Tuesday. But as long as Ryan doesn't succumb to Thursday night jitters and/or soreness, a la Brock Osweiler, he should light it up in Ybor City.
- The Falcons have a pass rush, (Shh, don't tell anyone.) Through half of a full season, Atlanta's defense has tallied 18 sacks, which is one behind the unit's season-long, league-worst total from last year. The Falcons currently rank 12th in the league in sacks, 10th in picks, eighth in forced fumbles and fourth in combined tackles, Led by the youthful trio of pass rusher Vic Beasley (fourth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks), linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, Quinn's unit has improved mightily in his second season as coach. Their ability to correct mistakes made in the season opener, when Winston threw four scores and was not sacked even once, will say a lot about the maturity of Atlanta's young defense and Quinn's mettle as a coach.
- Why aren't these teams on national television every week? The Falcons' last four games and six of their eight contests have all been decided by one score or less, including their season-opening loss at home to Tampa Bay. The Bucs are a bipolar bunch, settling for four one-score games and three unbearable blowouts. The reason for these teams' increased likelihood to play close contests probably has to do with the unpredictability of their defenses, which are prone to surrendering big plays at unfortunate points in the game. It may not be great football, but it sure is great TEEVEE. Tune in, sheeple!