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Bucs-Falcons: Predictions for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game

Here's the Times' Bucs coverage team's picks for the Atlanta-Tampa Bay finale at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs center Ryan Jensen (66) confronts Falcons linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (59) while referee Walt Coleman (65) separates after Atlanta cornerback Brian Poole's  hit on Jameis Winston in the first half Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Bucs center Ryan Jensen (66) confronts Falcons linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (59) while referee Walt Coleman (65) separates after Atlanta cornerback Brian Poole's hit on Jameis Winston in the first half Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Published Dec. 28, 2018

TAMPA — The Bucs will be trying to avoid a last-place finish for the eighth time in 10 seasons when they play the Falcons on Sunday.

Here's our staff predictions:

Whimper before the bang

Martin Fennelly, columnist @mjfennelly: In Dirk Koetter and Jason Licht's final game in charge, the illusion of sunlight. Fresh off two face-saving wins, the Falcons should arrive in town with golf bags firmly strapped to their backs. The Bucs have more hungry, younger players with lots to prove, and should grind out a victory. Prediction: Tampa Bay 30-24.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com. Follow @mjfennelly

Winston needs a win

Ernest Hooper, Metro Columnist: Meaningless games stand as a flawed concept in the NFL. For a team searching for a silver lining in a cloud-filled season, for a quarterback looking to establish a degree of certainty in an uncertain future, for a coach with what one last shot to prove his mettle, this game means a lot. When you realize those sentences could describe the Falcons or the Bucs, you have a battle that should prove entertaining. Of course, the plight of Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter are far more perilous. They need this win just a little more, so I think they'll get it. Of course, it won't be easy. It never is with the 2018 Bucs. Prediction: Tampa Bay 24-20.

Falcons defense is vulnerable

Eduardo A. Encina, Bucs/pro sports enterprise writer: Six wins versus five wins, what’s the difference other than draft standing? Not much. For the Bucs, a win could keep them out of the division cellar. The Falcons are coming off back-to-back wins by beating up on floundering teams. The Bucs qualify as that, but here’s saying they end the season on a high note at home, but barely in a close game. After spending most of the month playing strong defenses, Atlanta’s is one the Bucs can take advantage of with the passing game. Prediction: Tampa Bay 27-24

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard

Finished?

Rick Stroud, Bucs beat writer: Those who dream of their team tanking for a higher draft pick, you know, doing what's best for the franchise, may be missing the point of what it means to compete in professional sports. Nobody said just tank, baby. Sure, you can empty the bench and give your team a worse chance of winning. But if the fix is in, shouldn't you let the paying customers in on it? Refunds available? Bucs will play hard to win for Koetter. Prediction:  Tampa Bay 28-24.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

Tank you very much

Thomas Bassinger, sports data reporter: You remember what the Bucs did in 2014? They kept several starters on the bench as a 20-7 halftime lead disappeared. Why? Because they realized they had nothing to gain by winning that game and everything to lose. Their reward for tanking: the No. 1 overall pick, which ultimately became Jameis Winston. Chances are Winston will be back next season, so the Bucs need to do what they can now to make the team around him better in 2019. Besides, no one gets rings for going 6-10. Think of this game as a pre-draft day trade. The loser gets the better draft picks. The winner gets the worse draft picks. Does it seem smart to hand your division rival better draft picks? Prediction: Tampa Bay 31-28

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

Not your typical play-out-the-string finale

Mike Sherman, sports editor: Nothing to play for but everything is on the line. A coaching staff, an administration, a No. 1 overall pick's standing with an organization, Gerald McCoy's time in Tampa Bay. Some of it's probably already decided.  Prediction: Atlanta 31-28.

Contact Mike Sherman at msherman@tampabay.com. Follow @mikesherman