The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4) entered Week 8 riding a two-game winning streak, trailing Atlanta by just a half game in the NFC South. The Buccaneers were unable to capitalize, losing 30-24 in overtime to the Raiders at home.
Conversely, the Atlanta Falcons (5-3) were able to rebound from a two-game losing streak with an impressive come-from-behind victory over Green Bay last Sunday. The Falcons lead the Bucs by two games in the win column and one in the loss column (Tampa Bay has had its bye, Atlanta’s is in Week 11), so regardless of the outcome on Thursday night there will be no change atop the division standings.
But Tampa Bay will have an opportunity to narrow the gap as the two teams meet for the second time this season. The Buccaneers beat the Falcons in Atlanta back in Week 1, winning 31-24. Tampa Bay has three straight wins over its divisional rival, so the Falcons will be looking to avoid a second straight season sweep with a victory in their primetime showdown at Raymond James Stadium.
Atlanta at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 3 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Atlanta -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jameis Winston’s Depleted Supporting Cast
Winston’s best performance of the season came in the season-opening win in Atlanta. He threw four touchdown passes, completed 72 percent of his passes and posted a 125.1 passer rating, all season highs. Unfortunately, three of the four players who caught those touchdown passes are now injured or no longer with the team. In fact, Winston’s supporting cast has dwindled significantly since Week 1.
Tampa Bay’s backfield in particular has been hit hard by injuries, as the team’s top three rushers all are currently sidelined. Jacquizz Rodgers (with Atlanta 2011-14) was the latest to get hurt, joining Doug Martin and Charles Sims (on injured reserve). That leaves an uninspiring committee of journeyman backs that include Peyton Barber, Antone Smith (played for Atlanta 2010-14) and Mike James, who was released by the team in early September but then re-signed on Tuesday because of the need for another healthy body. Considering these three have combined for 113 rushing yards on 21 carries this season, it doesn’t exactly portend great things from the Bucs’ running game on Thursday night.
Winston also must make due with an improvised receiving corps that is absent Vincent Jackson, Louis Murphy and Cecil Shorts. The good news is that Winston still has big-play receiver Mike Evans, which goes a long way, particularly when facing a terrible Falcons secondary. The bad news is that Winston must face a much-improved pass rush this time around. Atlanta linebacker Vic Beasley, who has 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles over his last four games, has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks of late.
2. Can the Atlanta Passing Game Overcome a Bad Defense?
While Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the rest of Atlanta’s high-powered passing attack have done everything right this season, their efforts have often been neutralized by an anemic defense. The Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay is a shining example of just that. Ryan threw for 334 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in that game. Jones added 66 receiving yards and a touchdown. Yet, the Falcons still managed to lose the game, giving up 31 points in the process.
Atlanta’s defense has shown signs of improvement since that game and will get the benefit of facing a Buccaneer offense that doesn’t have its full complement of weapons. Regardless, Ryan and the passing game will need to continue to produce, especially on the road. Fortunately, a promising matchup awaits, as Tampa Bay is 23rd in the NFL against the pass after surrendering 513 yards and four touchdowns to Oakland’s Derek Carr in last week’s overtime loss. Ryan already has one 500-yard game this season, and while he may not repeat that number, he should be able to have success through the air against this Buccaneers defense.
3. Roberto Aguayo
Aguayo was one of the most decorated kickers in college football history and heralded as one of the safest picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, which is why Tampa Bay was perfectly comfortable with trading up to select him late in the second round. In three years at Florida State, Aguayo successfully connected on 69 of 78 field goal attempts and never missed a PAT. Aguayo was so good in college that it became a forgone conclusion that his success would carry over to the NFL. Unfortunately, that has yet to materialize as a pro.
Aguayo struggled mightily throughout the preseason, and things haven’t improved much since. He has failed to connect on a field goal and/or an extra point attempt in five of his first seven games in the NFL. Aguayo is a woeful 7-for-12 on field goal attempts overall. He also has missed the mark on two PATs, including one last week in the fourth quarter against Oakland that forced the offense to go for two the next time it scored. Regardless of the situation, Aguayo’s misses get more attention because of his lofty draft status and the expectations that come with them. Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter has been consistent in his support of this young kicker, but the reality right now is that Aguayo is more of a liability than an asset. When called on Thursday night, he needs to get the job done, especially if it means the difference between his team improving to 4-4 or dropping to 3-5.
Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14. Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator Mike Smith was the Falcons’ head coach from 2008-14. Other than the current coaching staff, it’s safe to say that no one knows the Falcons better than Koetter and Smith. This provides an undeniable edge for Tampa Bay, who is looking for the season sweep of the current NFC South leader. Home-field-advantage doesn’t hurt the Bucs’ cause either.
The thing that does hurt their cause against Atlanta this time around however is a lack of playmakers on offense. The Tampa Bay backfield has been completely depleted by injury. Aside from Mike Evans, Jameis Winston is basically void at the skill positions. The Bucs’ defense and kicking game also have their share of question marks.
The Falcons have issues of their own, particularly on defense, which provides some semblance of hope for a resilient Tampa Bay team. Regardless, the short-handed Buccaneers will be hard-pressed to keep pace with the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Buccaneers 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.