THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A “MEANINGLESS” GAME!
Just ask Tom Brady. Neither one of these teams has anything to gain or lose with this game, but don’t try to tell either of them that. This game has plenty of meaning for BOTH teams. For the Falcons, it’s an opportunity to beat the NFC South Champs and end a shitty season on a good note with a win. They would also play the role of spoiler in keeping the Bucs from a 9-8 winning season. As for the Bucs, it’s a chance to get their third win in a row and keep their momentum heading into the playoffs. Not only are the Bucs trying to finish with a winning season, but Tom Brady is trying NOT to finish with a losing season for the first time in his career. He’s also hoping NOT to tarnish his 11-0 career record against the Falcons. Although, I’m not sure how much he’ll have to do with that if he gets pulled from the game early on.
The first time these two teams met this season, the Bucs jumped out to a 21-0 lead before giving up 15 points in the 4th quarter. As they have done so many times this season, the Bucs kept their fans on the edge of their seats but held off the Falcons late comeback attempt for the 21-15 win in the end. Both Tampa Bay AND Atlanta were 2-2 going into that Week 5 game. Since then, the Buccaneers have gone 6-6, while the Falcons have gone 4-8 including four straight losses before their win against the Cardinals last week. Tampa Bay already has five starters sitting this game “OUT” with injuries, but they could end up resting even more starters throughout this game. I don’t see Atlanta doing the same. In any case, let’s take a deeper look into both of these teams going into this “meaningless” Week 18 matchup.
ATLANTA FALCONS (6-10)
Even though the expectations weren’t as high for them, they’ve had the same kind of inconsistent up and down season that the Bucs have had. They started with back-to-back losses to the Saints and Rams, but followed those up with wins against the Seahawks and Browns. They beat the Niners in Week 5, but lost to the Commanders and Steelers in Weeks 11 and 12. Now here they sit at 6-10, mathematically eliminated from the post-season and already looking towards next year.
With Marcus Mariota on IR, their 25th ranked offense averaging 315 total yards and 21 points per game will be lead this week by rookie quarterback Desmond Redder, who’s completed 64% of his passes for 484 yards in the 3 games he’s played this season. No touchdowns, but also no interceptions either. The 31st ranked passing offense is averaging just 156 yards through the air, while the 3rd ranked rushing attack is averaging 159 yards on the ground. That run game is led by rookie running back Tyler Allgeier who’s totaled 900 yards and 3 touchdowns this season. He has taken over the starting job from veteran Cordarelle Patterson, who’s been battling some injuries, but still managed to total 677 yards and 7 touchdowns this year. Both guys are averaging nearly 5 yards per carry, so they are BOTH a threat every time they get the football. They also have a rookie leading them in receiving as well in Drake London, who’s got 66 catches for 746 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The 29th ranked defense is allowing 371 total yards and 23 points per game. Their 26th ranked pass defense is giving up 238 yards per game through the air, while the 24th ranked run defense is allowing 133 yards per game on the ground. Linebacker Rashaan Evans is their leading tackler by far with 154 tackles. The next closest guy is safety Richie Grant with 116 tackles. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett leads the team in tackles for loss (11) and sacks (6). Cornerback AJ Terrell leads them in pass break-ups (8), while they have three players (LB Mykal Walker, S Richie Grant, S Jaylinn Hawkins) tied with a team-high 2 interceptions.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
OFFENSE : RB Tyler Allgeier
The rookie running back took over the starting role after veteran Cordarelle Patterson got injured earlier this season and never looked back. This year, he’s got 186 carries for 900 yards and 3 touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He’s also added 16 catches for 139 yards and another touchdown in the passing game. The Falcons have no interest in throwing the football and they don’t even try to hide it. Their offense literally runs through Allgeiers and Patterson. If the Bucs can shut their run game down, like they did the Panthers last week, then they should be able to win this game even without playing some of their starters.
DEFENSE : DE Grady Jarrett
He is the monster in the middle for the Falcons defense. He’s totaled 58 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 6 sacks and 3 pass break-ups this season. He is definitely the guy to worry about with Atlanta’s front four, so controlling him will be key for the Buccaneers o-line who will be playing without left tackle Donovan Smith.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (8-8)
After beating the Panthers last week to clinch the NFC South title, the Buccaneers will have the unusual luxury of “resting” some starters on Sunday against the Falcons. They’ve already ruled “OUT” five starters and will likely limit the snaps of more during the game. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to win this one. There’s nothing on the line Sunday. They are locked in at that #4 seed and won’t move up or down regardless of the outcome of this game. But it’s still a division game. They would still like to finish 9-8 with a winning season. Tom Brady, who IS starting Sunday, has never had a losing season AND never lost to the Falcons in 11 games. The analyst and outsiders may say this game means nothing, but the Buccaneers don’t see it that way.
Their 11th ranked offense is averaging 355 total yards and 19 points per game. The 2nd ranked passing attack averages 278 yards per game through the air, while the 32nd ranked rushing offense averages just 76 yards per game on the ground. The only team MORE one dimensional than the Bucs on offense are the Chicago Bears who are 1st in rushing and 32nd in passing. Right now, the Bucs offense has scored 215 fewer points than they did last season. With one game remaining, that is the largest drop-off from one season to the next in NFL history. The next closest would be the 73-74 Falcons with 207 points. They’ve scored just 29 touchdowns this season, where they had 56 at this point last year. Tom Brady has completed 67% of his passes for 4,610 yards, 24 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. It’s hard to believe that he could still have a 5,000 yard season with the way the offense has performed this season, but he does. Leonard Fournette has just 668 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns, while averaging 3.5 yards per carry. Mike Evans now has 77 catches for 1,124 yards and 6 touchdowns this season, while Chris Godwin has 98 catches for 968 yards and 3 touchdowns. That means he needs just 32 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark giving the Bucs a pair of receivers with that honor this year.
The Bucs 7th ranked defense is allowing just 321 total yards and 20 points per game. The 8th ranked passing defense allows just 203 yards per game through the air, while the 15th ranked run defense is still giving up 115 yards per game on the ground. Linebackers Devin White (122) and Lavonte David (121) lead the team in tackles and also lead the team in tackles for loss (David-9, White-8). Defensive tackle Vita Vea leads the team with 6.5 sacks, but Devin White and Anthony Nelson are just behind him with 5.5 sacks. Cornerback Carlton Davis III leads the team with 11 pass break-ups, but he has been ruled “OUT” for this game. Cornerback Jamel Dean is the next closest with just 7 pass break-ups. The Bucs have three players tied with a team-high 2 interceptions including cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting and safety Mike Edwards.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
OFFENSE : WR Julio Jones
He has just 24 catches for 299 yards and 2 touchdowns in 10 games this season, but he’s getting more and more involved in the offense the healthier he gets. He missed the Bucs first meeting with the Falcons nursing his knee injury, so this will be the first time he’s faced the Falcons with Tampa Bay. It will also be his first time back playing in Atlanta since he left there two years ago.
DEFENSE : S Keanu Neal
He has played well for the Buccaneers this season totaling 63 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 4 pass break-ups and an interception. Like Jones, this will be his first trip back to Atlanta to play the Falcons, so I expect him to have a BIG game as well. Especially since safety Logan Ryan has been ruled “OUT” for Sunday.
1. Todd Bowles vs Desmond Ridder
Head coach Todd Bowles will almost certainly try to confuse the young rookie quarterback with different blitzes and coverages to try and trick him into some turnovers on Sunday. If the Bucs can stop the run and force the youngster into a turnover or two, then they should win this game easily.
2. Anthony Nelson vs Jake Matthews
“Nelly” has been playing better and better each week that he’s been in the starting lineup. In the last 6 games, he’s had 26 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 4 QB hits, 3.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. He’ll have a good matchup with Matthews on Sunday, who’s one of the better left tackles in the league.
3. Nick Leverett vs Grady Jarrett
Jarrett leads the Falcons in tackles for loss AND sacks and he’s one of the best interior defenders in football. Leverett will have his hands full, especially with Donovan Smith “OUT” for this game. With Josh Wells out for the season, I assume that Brandon Walton will be the starter at left tackle, which doesn’t bode well for Tom Brady and the offense.
With the Buccaneers having nothing to lose or gain with this game, they are deciding to “rest” some of their players who have been battling nagging injuries lately. That’s why they’ve already ruled “OUT” five starters for Sunday including cornerback Carlton Davis III (shoulder), outside linebacker Carl Nassib (pectoral), safety Logan Ryan (knee), left tackle Donovan Smith (foot) and defensive tackle Vita Vea (calf). They also have three players listed as “QUESTIONABLE” including cornerback Jamel Dean (toe), safety Mike Edwards (hamstring) and wide receiver Julio Jones (knee), so look for those guys to play limited snaps in this game. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see other players get pulled early for precautionary reasons either.
Atlanta is much better off than Tampa Bay with injuries. They only have one player officially ruled “OUT” in offensive lineman Elijah Wilkinson (calf). They also only have two players listed as “QUESTIONABLE” in tight end Felipe Franks (concussion) and running back Avery Williams (foot).
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. KEEP IT HEALTHY!
The Bucs want to win this game, but make no mistake the #1 priority coming out of this game is to STAY HEALTHY! The guys that have been hurt are getting some much needed rest and getting ready for the playoffs. Now it’s important to keep everyone else from getting hurt. Tampa Bay needs this win, but leaving Atlanta in one piece is even more important.
2. KEEP IT ROLLING!
After staying healthy, the next most important thing is winning this game. It’s still a division game, even if it doesn’t count for anything towards the standings. They would like to end the season with a winning 9-8 record. They would like to end the season with three wins in a row. They would like to keep their momentum going heading into the playoffs. Tom Brady would like to get to 12-0 against the Falcons. And he would also like to avoid the first losing season of his 23-year career. This game might seem “meaningless” in some ways, but it still means plenty to the Bucs.
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE!
Atlanta has scored more than 20 points just once since Week 9 and that was 27 points against a bad Bears defense in Week 11. This should be an easy game-plan for the Bucs. Stop the run on defense. Cause a turnover or two. Score early on offense. Get the ball out of Brady’s hand quickly. Run some play-action. Hit a few deep balls. And get out of town with a win. That’s it. That’s all it needs to be.
ODDS & ENDS
Odds : Bucs +4/Falcons -4
Over/Under : 40.5 points
Moneyline : Bucs +240/Falcons -285
WHEN & WHERE TO WATCH
When : Sunday, January 8th @ 1pm ET
Where : Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia
TV : FOX, NFL+ Radio : 97.9 FM/98 Rock
High around 55 with a 40% chance of rain; stadium does have a retractable roof, so weather will not effect this game
With the Bucs scoring more than 17 points in three straight games, I’m inclined to boost their point totals in my predictions, but not by much. They may not have much to play for and they may not play all their starters, but this team still wants to win this game. Especially Tom Brady, who’s NEVER had a losing season in his 23-year career. He wants this one bad and I think he gets it. Tampa Bay gets up early and never looks back. Bucs win.
Bucs 23 Falcons 13
THE WRAP UP
Who wants it more? That’s what this game will come down to in the end. The Bucs backups versus the Falcons starters. We may even get to see some action from second year quarterback Kyle Trask. The Buccaneers might just be deep enough with their roster that they can beat this Falcons team despite missing a bunch of starters.
I said “might be“.
If the starters can grab an early lead, like they did in the first meeting, they can win this game. This Atlanta team is not built to come from behind. If the Falcons get up early, then look for the Bucs to throw in the towel and pack it up. I don’t think that’ll happen though. The Bucs might be 8-8, but they’re 6-2 against teams with losing records this season. The Falcons are 6-10 this season.
You do the math.
This will be one of those games that might not be fun to watch from a fundamental football standpoint, but it will provide plenty of drama. Will the Bucs win? How long does Tom Brady play? Will we see Kyle Trask get some regular season action against a starting NFL defense? Can the Bucs stay healthy? All these questions and more will be answered by about 4:30 pm Sunday afternoon.
So now that you know everything you need to know about the Bucs final regular season matchup, there’s only one thing left to say.