Week 15 is an odd time for two division rivals to have their first meeting of the season, but the Falcons and Buccaneers will meet twice in the final three weeks. It has been another disappointing season for Atlanta (4-9) while the Buccaneers (8-5) are eying their first playoff appearance since the 2007 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, December 20, 2020 – 01:00 PM EDT at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
With the Falcons hosting Tom Brady, what can possibly go wrong? The Falcons are a 6-point underdog at most betting sites, the team’s most unfavorable spread of the season.
Tampa Bay: Back on Track?
Tampa Bay had the final bye week of the season. It could not have come at a better time after the team lost three of its last four games. The Buccaneers returned to action on Sunday with an important 26-14 win over Minnesota that had some encouraging (and some discouraging) signs to it.
Tom Brady was able to connect on a deep ball for a 48-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller, and the defense suffocated Kirk Cousins with six sacks, a forced fumble, and allowed only one play over 17 yards. However, the Vikings held the ball for over 39 minutes and kicker Dan Bailey missed three field goals and an extra point to greatly hurt his team’s chances of winning.
The touchdown to Miller adds more fuel to the discussion surrounding this passing offense. The offense was more productive earlier in the season when Miller was heavily involved as the third wide receiver behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Miller was getting open deep and even drew four pass interference penalties for an additional 116 yards. But once Tampa Bay brought in Antonio Brown, Miller’s snaps have gone to him despite a clear difference in production. Miller played for just five snaps on Sunday despite the big touchdown.
Brown has yet to score a touchdown and is only averaging 8.7 yards per catch compared to Miller’s 16.5 yards per catch, a team high. Tampa Bay will have to figure out how to better use Brown and keep Miller involved before the playoffs come. This week, they could just rely on the best receivers on the team. Chris Godwin has gone over 100 yards with two touchdowns in his last two games against the Falcons while Evans has scored eight touchdowns in 11 career games against Atlanta.
Atlanta: Defense Up, Offense Down
Leave it to the Falcons to not play complementary football. When the defense was as bad as any in the league to start the season, the offense was still impressive behind Matt Ryan. But since the defense has improved, the offense has fallen off the tracks. Not all of this is Ryan’s fault, as injuries to the skill players and offensive line, including future Hall of Famer Julio Jones, have started to add up.
Still, Ryan is entering this game on one of the toughest four-game stretches of his career. Since Week 11, Ryan has only completed 55.1% of his passes with four touchdowns, six interceptions, and a 66.0 passer rating. The Falcons failed to score more than 17 points in three of those four games, including Sunday’s loss to the Chargers were Ryan threw two interceptions in the final four minutes.
The numbers for the season are down for Ryan too. His completion percentage this season (63.7%) is his lowest since 2011. Ryan’s QBR (63.4) is the second lowest of his career. The Falcons currently rank 12th in yards per drive, which would be the first time in his career that Ryan did not lead a top 10 offense in that metric.
This could also be the first season where Ryan never led the Falcons on a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive. They are 0-5 at such opportunities this season, including losses in the last two weeks to the Saints and Chargers.
So this has not been a normal Atlanta offense, and to make matters worse, Julio Jones missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. His status is in doubt for Sunday as he did not practice on Wednesday. That is a big blow since the Buccaneers are a defense that Julio has destroyed in his career. In 16 career games against Tampa Bay, Jones has 114 catches for 1,841 yards and 11 touchdowns. For a wideout who rarely scores touchdowns, 11 is a huge number for him.
The Falcons need touchdowns to win this game, but they have been settling for field goals at an embarrassing rate in 2020. The Falcons lead the NFL with a field goal attempt on 24.5% of their drives. Kicker Younghoe Koo has been outstanding, making 33 of his 34 attempts (97.1%) this season. He needs just two more field goals to surpass the franchise record (34) set by Matt Bryant in 2016 and 2017.
Great for Koo, but the logical takeaway here is that this Ryan-led offense just settles for too many field goals and not enough touchdowns. At least this week, Koo should deliver on those kicks unlike Bailey did for the Vikings against Tampa Bay.
Whether it happens this week or in the rematch, it just feels inevitable that the Falcons will have a double-digit lead on the Buccaneers, only to see Brady lead a comeback. No, nothing of 28-3 proportions, but something along the lines of your typical Atlanta letdown. In fact, the Buccaneers are 3-3 this season when trailing by double digits, so it is not even a bold prediction to make.
Atlanta has not allowed more than 27 points since the first four games of the season, but as the defense has improved, the offense has taken a step back. Between Julio Jones’ injury and the reliance on field goals, for my NFL picks I have to fade the Falcons in this one and go with the Buccaneers to cover the spread in a 27-20 type of game.