TAMPA — At its most basic level, every NFL game is decided, to a great extent, by individual matchups. No matter where the matchups occur, someone has to win.
But some matchups loom larger than others — especially in games as important as Sunday's Falcons-Bucs showdown in the NFC South — such as the one between Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib and Falcons receiver Roddy White.
"You're talking about two of the best players at their positions," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
"It's a great battle that I love to watch," Bucs coach Raheem Morris echoed.
Adding to the intrigue is that White, the NFC's leading receiver, was held to season lows in receptions (four) and yards (49) in the first meeting between these teams — partly because he was slowed by a knee sprain, but also because Talib tends to have that effect on receivers.
"In our first matchup, I felt he won that one," White, 29, said of Talib. "… He kind of kept me quiet throughout the game. I think he did a good job, and this is Round 2."
Talib, who ranks second in the NFL with six interceptions, deflects the praise.
"(White) says I got the best of him, but they won the game," Talib, 24, said. "I feel like I lost the matchup."
Though the Bucs play a mixture of zone and man-to-man coverages, you can be sure Talib will never be far from White.
"We scheme our defense around me being in front of the other team's best receiver," Talib said. "I'm glad Raheem made that my role."
"He kind of followed me around in the first game, which is great," White said. "It's great when you get a guy who wants to follow you around because it's great competition, especially when he's their best player."
Talib is a tough matchup for White because the third-year cornerback can negate some of White's best attributes — "Roddy has good size, comes out of his breaks really well, he runs really crisp routes," Bucs defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said.
But Talib measures up, at 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds, compared to White's 6-0, 212. As for route running, Talib's instincts and anticipation let him react well when the sixth-year receiver cuts.
More important, Talib possesses a rare combination of athleticism and physicality, using his strength to press and redirect receivers at the line of scrimmage. That disrupts the route's precision and could throw off the timing between White and quarterback Matt Ryan.
"He did a good job a couple times at the line of scrimmage of getting his hands on me, bumping me off routes," White said of Talib. "For myself, I just have to go out there and use my hands and be a little more physical with the guy and just beat him."
Bucs veteran cornerback Ronde Barber likened Talib's blend of skills to those of a certain Jets star.
"He's like (Darrelle) Revis off the line (of scrimmage)," Barber said. "He plays great up at the line, and he has great instincts when he's in somebody's face. … We're lucky to have that."
Talib follows contact at the line with sometimes circus-like catches. Last week, he picked off Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco by trapping the ball between his shins, even while falling, before gaining control of it. He then got up and returned the interception 25 yards.
"A lucky little play," is how Talib modestly described it.
But there's nothing lucky about how Talib has performed against White, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. And if Talib has future success against him, in what could become a premier matchup for years to come, it won't be because of luck, either.
"In my opinion, Aqib is the best cornerback in the league," Lake said. "He can match up with anybody."