Rivalry week in the NFL is nothing like in college or high school. However, there's still a different "vibe" when facing a division rival than a non-division opponent. Atlanta will take their luggage to Tampa Bay on Sunday for their second divisional game. The Falcons are currently 1-0 in the NFC South, as they defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in the first game of the regular season. After a disappointing performance against Washington, Atlanta has a chance to right the ship and get back into the win column against the Buccaneers.
Offensive consisity continues to be the issue for the Falcons. The defense has stood out this year (more than an ATL defense has in the last five years), but what was supposed to be Atlanta's "bread and butter" has turned into their downfall. However, the question remains whether Desmond Ridder is Atlanta's QB1. I won't get too deep into that question in this article, as I will rate his overall performance during the bye week. The three interceptions he threw last week really hurt the team's momentum, as all three occurred in the second half, two of them in Washington's territory. Now, there still is some good. He has thrown for back-to-back 300-yard games and is willing to use his legs to gain yards. To quickly get to the point, I don't think he needs to be benched; there are a lot of other contributing factors that go into the offensive miscues (play calling, game management) that go beyond Ridder. Like every other Falcons fan, I was pissed at Ridder's performance, and it's easy to point fingers after a tough loss. Let's stay patient and ask whether Taylor Heinickie is a better option than Desmond Ridder.
Okay, mini-rant over, let's get into the Tampa Bay scout. Tampa Bay's first season without Tom Brady (thank the Heavens) has gone somewhat better than some have imagined. The Bucs are currently 3-2, sitting at the top of the NFC South. The Baker Mayfield-led offense currently ranks 25th in both points and total yards, and they even also rank 17th in passing yards and 29th in rushing yards. Still, Mike Evans and Chris Goodwin are still around, and even when not at their best, it's still one of the best WR duos in the NFL. However, the defense has led them to the top spot in the NFC South. The Bucs defense is fourth in points allowed; they have only allowed six passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns so far in the season. Also, Tampa Bay ranks in the top 10 in about every rushing category regarding defense. On top of that, the Bucs are tied for second in turnover differential (+6) and are ninth in the league in total turnovers at 11. I mentioned earlier about turnovers hurting Atlanta; this week will be no easy task, as Tampa Bay will do everything they can to take the ball away.
Date: Sunday, October 22nd
Start Time: 1pmET/10amPT
Location: Tampa, Florida
Stadium: Raymond-James Stadium
TV Info: FOX
Key Players- Offense
Drake London- Falcons WR
For all you Desmond Ridder haters, guess what? He's more than likely going to be called to throw the ball a decent amount this week due to Tampa's run defense. If Ridder succeeds in the passing game Sunday, it'll be from having to target his number one WR, Drake London. I haven't talked much about London, but he's had a decent season so far, at least the terms in the Falcons offense. He already has half the touchdowns he had last year at two. London was also just 134 receiving yards away from reaching 1,000 as a rookie. Now, the quarterbacks that London has been paired with may be affecting his playing abilities, but the 6'4'', 213-pound receiver has shown potential to be a playmaker in this league. Just look at this catch he had on Sunday.
Mike Evans- Buccaneers WR
Every year since 2014, there is one reason that bugged me twice a year when the Falcons played the Bucs: Mike Evans. Evans has had a 1,000-yard receiving season since his rookie campaign. Evans is also a four-time pro bowler and an all-pro WR; annoying to have as a rival, right? Evans isn't having his best campaign this year, but still a productive one. The Bucs veteran currently has 386 yards, completed by three touchdowns; he is also the Bucs' most-targeted WR. No matter who Evans has at quarterback, he can obliterate opposing teams' secondaries. Evans currently has 1,317 receiving yards and ten touchdowns in his career against the Falcons. It will be a true test of how good the Falcons' secondary is if they can slow down Evans.
Key Players- Defense
Calaias Campbell- Falcons DL
This is more of a "Player Spotlight" than a "Key Player. On Sunday, Campbell recorded his 100th career sack against the Commanders after breaking through the Washington O-line and taking down Sam Howell. I talked about the Falcons being a place of improvement for the Dirty Bird defense, and now that the 16-year veteran has gotten his 100th sack, hopefully, we can see more sacks coming from him and the rest of the Falcons pass rush.
Christin Izien- Buccaneers S
Continuing on the point of turnovers, the Bucs have a lot of them, and Atlanta has not been good with the turnover margin (-6). Protecting the ball will be a key component if the Falcons want to walk away with a win on Sunday. Multiple players have turnovers in the Bucs secondary, and I just decided to highlight one. Christian Izien currently has two interceptions and two passes defended.
Points Spread: ATL +2.5 (-105) |TB -2.5 (-115)
Moneyline: ATL (+126) | TB (-148)
Over/Under: O 37.5 (-110) | U 37.5 (-110)
Lines via FanDuel as of Saturday, October 21
It's hard to pick the Falcons as a winner, no matter how much it pains me. Even with a defense that has been incredible all year and has bailed the offense many times, it doesn't matter if the offense can't put enough points to win the game. This team is one little issue being fixed from being able to take off. Maybe adding Van Jefferson will help; perhaps the problem is Desomd Ridder, or it could be coaching. Either way, there are more problems with the Falcons offense than just Riider: inability to get into a rhythm and lack of balance. I still stand by my point of "giving the ball to your playmakers" if Atlanta wants to find a rhythm. Heck, look at the win over Houston; Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson both had big games, along with Desomd Ridder.
Divisional games early in the season are must-win games. We all know winning your division is a sure ticket to get into the playoffs. Now, divisional games on the road are a totally different story. However, Atlanta can protect the ball, and the Dirty Bird defense can continue off of their five-sack performance last week. ATL has a pretty good chance of winning. But again, it's hard to pick a team with an offense that has struggled going up against a defense that is just plain tough.
Prediction: TB: 17, ATL: 13
(I've talked about how good JBlll is, but look how good he really has been.)
(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)