Tampa Bay Buccaneers At Atlanta Falcons NFL Week 1 Predictions

Atlanta Falcons Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

Matthew Jordan

Sunday, September 11, 2016 4:35 PM UTC

Sunday, Sep. 11, 2016 4:35 PM UTC

The Carolina Panthers have won the NFC South Division four years running. Might Tampa Bay or Atlanta end that run in 2016? The winner of Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome will have an early leg up. The Falcons are -2.5 on NFL odds with a total of 47.5.

Important Season For Falcons' Ryan
This will be the final season opener for the Falcons at the not-very-old Georgia Dome as they move to the spectacular new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017.

It's somewhat difficult to get a read on Atlanta in all honesty. Last year, under first-year head coach Dan Quinn, the former Seattle defensive coordinator, the Falcons got off to a 5-0 start, although they were very fortunate to win games against the Eagles, Giants and Redskins.

Then Atlanta went to New Orleans on a Thursday in Week 6 and lost 31-21. The Falcons were lucky to beat a bad Tennessee team 10-7 the next week before dropping the next six straight. The only highlight the second half of the season was a 20-13 home upset of then-unbeaten Carolina in Week 16.

So are the Falcons as good as the team that started 5-0 last year and knocked off the Panthers? Probably not. Are they as bad as the team that lost six in a row? Certainly not. Atlanta is given a wins total of 7.5 on NFL predictions with the under a -140 favorite. The team hasn't finished with a winning record since going 13-3 in 2012 and entering the playoffs as the NFC's No. 1 seed. The Falcons lost in the NFC title game 28-24 in a terrific game against San Francisco.

It's somewhat of a make-or-break season for Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. He was borderline elite -- as in Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers company -- in the 2012 season by setting career highs with 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. Last year he wasn't that player, throwing just 21 touchdowns (second fewest in career) with 16 picks (second most) and a rating of 89.0 (worst since 2009). That was all despite having perhaps the NFL's greatest receiver to throw to in 2015 in Julio Jones, who tied for the NFL lead with 136 catches (second-most ever) and led with 1,871 yards (also second-most ever).

Jones believes the first 2,000-yard season for a receiver is possible. He has been bothered by an ankle injury in the preseason -- injuries are really the only knock on the guy -- but is expected to start on Sunday. Jones injured his ankle in the third preseason game against Miami.

So the Falcons will score with Ryan, Jones and running back Devonta Freeman (1,061 yards rushing, tied for NFL lead with 14 total TDs), but for Atlanta to improve this season, the offensive line and defense have to improve. Atlanta took Florida safety Keanu Neal with its first-round pick, but he will miss the first few games following knee surgery. The club added veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had 8.5 sacks in limited time with the Cardinals last year.


Bucs' Winston Next Great NFL QB?
Tampa Bay has the highest ceiling of any NFC South team, in my opinion, and I'm even including Carolina. But the Bucs might be one more year away. They were 6-10 last year, which was a four-game improvement over 2014. Yet the front office decided to fire head coach Lovie Smith despite that jump in wins because it was so impressed with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Koetter's prized pupil in 2015 was No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, and he was second in the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting in setting several team records. The former Heisman winner completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Winston also ran for 213 yards and six scores. In some ways, he's Cam Newton Jr. Winston expects to improve his completion percentage this year and cut down on the turnovers.

If Winston takes another step, the Bucs are excellent at the skill positions. Doug Martin was second in the NFL last year with 1,402 yards rushing. The worry about him is that Martin was also stellar as a rookie in 2012 but then unproductive and injury-prone the next two years. Which guy is he? Martin had some hamstring troubles in the preseason but will start Sunday. Winston has two big receivers in 6-foot-5 Mike Evans (74 catches, 1,206 yards, three TDs) and 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson (33 catches, 543 yards, three TDs in injury-plagued season).

Like the Falcons, the Bucs need better play from the offensive line and defense. The team added three starters in free agency in defensive end Robert Ayers, linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Brent Grimes. The Bucs also have two good-looking rookies in first-round cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and second-round outside linebacker Noah Spence.

Tampa has a wins total of 7.5 on NFL predictions with the under a -130 favorite.


Falcons vs. Bucs Series History
Tampa swept Atlanta last year after the Falcons did the same in 2014. Both games in 2015 could have gone the other way. In Week 7 at the Georgia Dome, the Bucs won 23-20 in overtime. Tampa led 20-3 late in the third quarter and Atlanta tied it with 17 seconds left on a Ryan-to-Jones 8-yard TD pass. But after the Bucs hit a 31-yard field goal in OT, the Falcons offense couldn't do anything. In Week 13 in Tampa, the Bucs got their final win of the season, 23-19. Winston hit Evans on a 6-yard TD pass with 1:39 left. No team has won three straight in this series since Atlanta in 2009-10.

It's important to shop for NFL lines here if you want to give the points, as I do. Many books have the spread at 3 but you can find 2.5. Give that and go 'over' the total. The  favorite has covered five of the past six meetings. The 'over' is 7-3 in the Falcons' past 10 in September.

NFL Pick: Falcons & Over
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