Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons: Prediction, preview, pick to win

Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-6) AT ATLANTA FALCONS (6-4)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. TV: Fox, Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth, Shannon Spake (field reporter).

SERIES HISTORY: 48th regular-season meeting. Bucs lead series, 24-23, having won three of the past four games. Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, Atlanta has a 15-14 edge.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Last week against Miami, Tampa Bay gave up pass pays of 61, 49 and 45 yards. The Buccaneers’ defense cannot afford to surrender that kind of yardage to the high-powered Falcons offense.

With running back Devonta Freeman still in the concussion protocol and likely to miss another game, the Falcons must continue to target wide receiver Julio Jones. If Atlanta stretches the field, running back Tevin Coleman could find more open lanes.

Jones was targeted 30 times in the past three weeks — catching 17 passes for 246 yards — but Atlanta’s leading receiver hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Oct. 22 against New England.

The Falcons have played their way back into the crowded NFC playoff picture, but with games against the 8-2 Vikings and 8-2 Saints coming up, this one is critical if they’re going to stay there.

Committing to getting the ball to wide receiver Mike Evans helped the Buccaneers last week.

Coming off a one-catch, 13-yard performance, Evans caught five for 92 in Tampa Bay’s 30-20 win in Miami.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was 22-for-37 for 275 yards and two touchdowns last week, will benefit from a second week of practice with the first team, in place of Jameis Winston, who has been ruled out with a shoulder injury.

–Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Bucs CB Brent Grimes. Grimes has two interceptions. He’s quick to diagnose the play and tries to make plays on the ball. Jones has just one touchdown reception this season, but he leads the Falcons in receptions (54) and yards (786).

–Bucs WR Mike Evans vs. Falcons CB Desmond Trufant. Evans leads the Bucs in receptions (45) and yards (624) and has four touchdowns. He caught five passes for 92 yards last week against Miami after serving his one-game suspension for shoving Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Trufant returned a Russell Wilson interception 43 yards against the Seahawks. The Falcons are playing more man-to-man defense, but the Bucs are not expecting Trufant to match up with Evans.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Falcons RB Terron Ward. The Falcons are preparing as if they will be without running back Devonta Freeman for a second consecutive game. He’s in the league’s concussion protocol and missed the Seattle game. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward filled in against the Seahawks. Coleman rushed 20 times for 43 yards, while Ward had 31 yards on six carries. Look for Ward to get some more of the work against the Bucs.

FAST FACTS: Tampa Bay QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has won his past two starts. He passed for 275 yards and two touchdowns last week. He has seven touchdowns vs. three interceptions in his past four games. … RB Doug Martin has 196 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown in his past two games vs. Atlanta. In four career games at Atlanta, he has 388 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown. … WR Mike Evans has 483 receiving yards (96.6 per game) and five touchdowns in his past five games against the Falcons. He has six touchdowns in his past eight games within the NFC South. … Rookie TE O.J. Howard has three touchdowns in his past three road games. He ranks third among NFL rookies with four receiving touchdowns. … TE Cameron Brate had touchdown catch in the last meeting between the teams. Since 2016, he ranks second among NFL TEs with 12 touchdown catches. … DT Gerald McCoy had a sack last week. He has five sacks and a forced fumble in his past five games against Atlanta. … LB Lavonte David has four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in his past six games. Since 2013, he is the only NFL player with 700 tackles (720) and 15 forced fumbles (16). … LB Kwon Alexander led the Bucs with eight tackles and had an interception in Week 11. He has two sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in four career games vs. Atlanta. … CB Brent Grimes had 13 interceptions and in six seasons with the Falcons. (2007-12). … Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has 14 touchdowns vs. one interception in his past seven home games against Tampa Bay. He aims for his third straight 300-yard game against the Bucs. He has thrown touchdown passes in 28 consecutive games, the longest active streak. Since 2016, he is tied for the NFL lead with 53 touchdown passes and ranks third with 7,511 yards. … RB Tevin Coleman aims for his fourth game in a row with a touchdown. He had 117 yards from scrimmage (95 receiving) in his last home game vs. Tampa Bay. … WR Julio Jones ranks second in the NFC with 786 receiving yards. He has 521 yards (104.2 per game) and six touchdowns in five career home games against the Buccaneers. … WR Mohamed Sanu has a touchdown catch in three of his past four games. He had 80 receiving yards and a touchdown in the last home meeting. … TE Austin Hooper had a touchdown catch in last meeting. … LB Vic Beasley Jr. has seven sacks and three forced fumbles in his past nine home games. … DT Grady Jarrett has two sacks in his past three games vs. Tampa Bay. … DE Adrian Clayborn returned a fumble 10 yards for a touchdown in Week 11, his second career touchdown. … CB Desmond Trufant has two interceptions in his past three games against the Bucs. He had an interception last week, too.

PREDICTION: The Falcons likely saved their season by beating Dallas and Seattle the past two weeks. And, while Matt Ryan has yet to return to his 2016 form, he should be able to outduel the Bucs’ Ryan Fitzpatrick.

OUR PICK: Falcons, 26-17.

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