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Atlanta Falcons Week Thirteen Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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A team can’t get much better than what the Atlanta Falcons were in November.

No, literally. They can’t. Now sitting at 9-2, the Falcons went 4-0 last month and have the best record in the NFC  and are tied with the New York Jets and New England Patriots for that label in the league as a whole.

There are degrees of perfection, of course. Atlanta won three of those four games by six points or less. If a flag is thrown on Roddy White on the late game-winning touchdown pass against the Baltimore Ravens or the Green Bay Packers eat up a little more time on the clock on what they thought was their game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, the Falcons’ situation might be a bit murkier.

But none of that happened. The Falcons aren’t perfect, nor were they in November. Yet they still went 4-0, and that’s all that really matters. It’s the type of stuff that makes one believe the talk about this being Atlanta’s year. Watching these guys in November would certainly make you believe it.

The big story in December will be the road tests. While three of the four games in November were played in the Georgia Dome –where Matt Ryan has lost just a single game in 20 chances — only one game in December is in Atlanta. That leaves three road trips in a row. While none of them are against teams that would be deemed intimidating – with Seattle being the only one in the top two in its division, yet the Seahawks are 5-6  — it is a difficult challenge, nonetheless.

The tour begins this weekend in Tampa Bay against a Buccaneers squad that is in the thick of the playoff hunt at 7-4 and needs a win to strengthen their chances.

It hasn’t been a month since the Falcons disposed of the Bucs  27-21 in Atlanta. That score is a bit deceiving, though. Tampa was playing catch-up throughout the game, down 14-0 early in the second quarter and then 27-14 late in the third quarter. Yet the Falcons still had to make a late fourth down stop near the goal line to seal the win. Quarterback Josh Freeman threw two interceptions while only accumulating 189 yards through the air. Meanwhile, the Bucs’ ground game gained 96 yards, most of them by LeGarrette Blount who ran for 46 yards.

Since then, Tampa beat the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers by a combined score of 52-16, before falling to the Baltimore Ravens a week ago 17-10 in Baltimore. The Ravens dominated the Tampa offense, holding them to 263 total yards.

But Freeman has not thrown an interception since the two in the Dome, and has only thrown five all year. He hasn’t been pretty — as represented by his 45 percent completion percentage last week — but chances are Freeman isn’t going to put his team in trouble like he did a month ago against the Falcons. In actuality, not much about Tampa Bay is pretty as they aren’t great at any one thing, and pretty pedestrian at a lot of them. They rely on their opponent’s mistakes to win games.

So, will Matt Ryan toss a couple interceptions after matching a franchise record for completion percentage last week against the Packers. Or will Michael Turner cough up the ball in a key situation against a defense that is sixth worst against the run in the league. Those things are impossible to predict. But mentality and preparation are not. If Atlanta maintains their focus this weekend, of course, they should win.

It is probable, just based on percentages, that the Falcons will lose one of the next three road games. But if you took percentages, the Falcons would have lost a couple more in November.

The obligatory prediction that I’ll ignore if it’s wrong and claim if it’s right:

Falcons 20 — Bucs 16

That’s A Lot of Short Steps

Michael Turner sits just 26 yards from a 1,000 yard rushing season, a mark that always makes running backs happy. It would be just the second time he surpassed the plateau, and will do so with an admirable 4.4 yards per carry. With Snelling listed as questionable for Sunday with a hamstring ailment, Turner will get plenty of chances.

Not The Winning Way

Tampa Bay is 0-4 against teams with winning records this year — Atlanta, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. It just lends credence to the notion that this Bucs squad is surpassing expectations thus far, and might not be better than a middle of the road team. There’s a first time for everything though, I suppose.

Someone’s Gotta Catch It

Roddy White leads the league with 84 receptions. Meanwhile, Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib is second in the league with six interceptions. Yeah, but Roddy’s taller.