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Monday Night Football: Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Preview and Prediction

Atlanta Falcons Julio Jones

Atlanta Falcons Julio Jones

The Atlanta Falcons will make their first road trip in almost a month to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an all-important NFC South matchup that could have serious division and playoff implications. This will mark the second meeting between these teams in the last three weeks. The previous meeting resulted in a 34-20 Falcons’ victory, tying the all-time series between these division rivals at 24 wins apiece.

Jameis Winston

The stakes will be higher this time around for the defending NFC champions. The 8-5 Falcons find themselves back in playoff contention after winning four of their last five contests. Last week’s 20-17 win over the Saints also has them back in the thick of a three-team race for the NFC South title. Even better, Atlanta still controls its own destiny within the hotly-contested division. It’s a tall order, but the Falcons can lock up the division crown with a season-ending sweep of Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Carolina. The possibility also still exists for the Falcons to miss the playoffs entirely. A loss to the Buccaneers would all but eliminate them from NFC South title contention, and seriously jeopardize their chances for the postseason.

The 4-9 Buccaneers have already been eliminated from postseason consideration. They lost their third game in a row last week to the Lions by a score of 24-21, effectively sealing their fate at the bottom of the NFC South. But the Buccaneers would still like nothing more than to play the role of spoiler against a hated rival on the big Monday night stage. Pride, revenge and home-field advantage could all serve as motivation to fuel the upset-minded Bucs.

Atlanta at Tampa Bay

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 18 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Atlanta -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. The Tampa Bay passing game

The last time these teams squared off, Ryan Fitzpatrick was under center for the Buccaneers. Tonight, Jameis Winston (above, right) will take the snaps. It’s debatable whether that’s an improvement. A season derailed by injury, controversy and overall lackluster play has largely been one to forget for the former No. 1 overall draft pick.

The additions of DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard, to go along with Pro Bowler Mike Evans and rising tight end Cameron Brate, were supposed to transcend the Tampa Bay passing game from good to great, but that has yet to really materialize. Brate and Howard have shown flashes of late, but Evans and Jackson have just one touchdown catch between them in the last seven games.

Winston is averaging 277 passing yards and two touchdowns per game since returning from injury. But he’s also committed four turnovers and been sacked 10 times in the last two weeks, playing behind a makeshift offensive line. Regardless, the Tampa Bay passing attack represents the Bucs’ best chance for success against the Falcons tonight. A ground game that has done next to nothing all season is unreliable at best. And despite what looks to be a bad matchup against a top-five pass defense, the potential is there for the Bucs’ passing game to come to life this week. Winston posted two of his top three passer ratings last season against the Falcons, recording a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in those two games.

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2. “Cover 10” for Julio Jones?

Earlier in the week, Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter suggested that he would use 10 players to cover Julio Jones in tonight’s matchup. While that’s obviously an exaggeration made in jest that may be what it takes to keep the All-Pro wide receiver in check. Just three weeks ago, Jones completely embarrassed the Tampa Bay secondary to the tune of 12 receptions for 253 yards and two touchdowns. And that wasn’t the first time the elite wideout has torched the Buccaneer defense. In fact, Jones is averaging close to 10 catches per game for 137 yards and a touchdown over his last five contests against Tampa Bay.

Koetter won't be able to employ his “Cover 10” approach to slow Jones down, but he will throw everything he can at the star wideout. Unfortunately, that isn’t much at the moment, with three key defenders out for tonight’s matchup. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (hamstring) will miss his fifth straight game. All-Pro defensive tackle and team sack leader Gerald McCoy (biceps) is out as well, as is linebacker Lavonte David (hamstring).

It also doesn’t help that the Buccaneers rank dead last in the NFL against the pass this season, allowing 276.1 yards per game. If by some miracle, the Bucs do manage to limit Jones, it could open the door for Mohamed Sanu to capitalize on the favorable matchup. One way or the other, Matt Ryan and company look to be in for a big night through the air.

3. Devonta Freeman vs. a crippled Tampa Bay defense

Tevin Coleman has been ruled out of tonight’s game due to a concussion, which should translate into a significant workload for Freeman (right). That bodes very well for the two-time Pro Bowl running back when paired with a very favorable matchup.

who to start, who to sit, start sit, start em sit em: running backs

As mentioned, the Buccaneers will be without McCoy and David tonight. McCoy is regarded as Tampa Bay’s best run defender and is generally a force up front. David is having a banner year from his linebacker position, leading the Bucs in tackles (84), forced fumbles (5) and fumble recoveries (5).

Look for the Falcons to exploit the absence of the Bucs’ best run defenders with a heavy dose of Freeman, in what could manifest into a season-best performance for the star running back. Even with McCoy and David in the lineup, Tampa Bay was giving up 113.2 rushing yards (18th in the NFL) and one rushing touchdown per game on average.

Final Analysis

Despite the Buccaneers’ struggles this season, this is the kind of matchup that can take a strange turn in favor of the underdog. I also kind of like Jameis Winston’s chances to get a little something going with the passing game. Which is exactly why the Falcons can ill-afford to look past their rival on the road in prime time.

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However, there really isn’t much evidence to suggest that Atlanta has much to worry about. The Falcons are superior in practically every statistical category, they have a significant edge in momentum, and let’s not forget that they will be well-rested and well-prepared after a 10-day layoff. They also have far too much on the line to take this matchup lightly. And when you add in the key injuries to the Buccaneers’ defense, it just doesn’t look good for the home team. Atlanta should cruise to victory.

Prediction: Falcons 34, Buccaneers 17

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.