TAMPA — The Bucs and Falcons have each won three straight games on Monday nights as they face each other on a national platform tonight at Raymond James Stadium.
How can Tampa Bay continue its streak and stop Atlanta's? It won't be easy, but given the context — national TV audience, coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht's future uncertain — it would be a huge, momentum-shifting upset to pull off. Here are the things to watch:
The magic number is 20
It's ambitious for a depleted Bucs defense, absolutely. But if you can hold Atlanta to fewer than 20 points, you win. The Falcons are 0-5 when they don't get to 20, and they're 8-0 when they score 20 or more. No team that has beaten Atlanta this season has scored more than 23 in doing so. It's all about defense if you're going to defeat the Falcons.
The Bucs have no such telltale line on the scoreboard — they've scored 20-plus and lost five times this season. So it's more on the Bucs defense to step up if an upset is going to happen.e_SClBHold Matt Ryan to one touchdown
Again, ambitious, and given the injuries on defense, best of luck with this. Ryan has thrown at least two TDs in seven straight Monday night games. The Falcons QB has an overall experience edge on Jameis Winston, but especially here: Ryan has played 10 games on Monday night; Winston has just one.
Still, Ryan is just 4-6 in those games. Atlanta as a franchise has played twice as many Monday games as the Bucs — 40 to 20 — but the Bucs (11-9) have almost as many Monday wins as the Falcons (13-27).e_SClBKeep containing
Much of the concern going in is about WR Julio Jones, as it should be. One potential source of confidence for the Bucs defense: Devonta Freeman hasn't run well against Tampa Bay in his career.
In six games against the Bucs, the former FSU star has yet to score a touchdown. He has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and 6.3 yards per catch. The Bucs won't have DT Gerald McCoy, however, so the rest of the defensive line must be stout against the run.e_SClBTake advantage of takeaways
Where are the Falcons least like their winning record? Turnover margin — they're at minus-5, with only 11 takeaways (Oakland, with 10, is the only team with fewer) and 16 turnovers.
Of the eight teams worse in the NFL, only the Titans (8-5) have a winning record.
The Bucs are a similar outlier on the other end at plus-4; of the 11 teams with a better margin, all have a .500 or better record, yet Tampa Bay is 4-9, showing that winning the turnover battle can still be overcome by other struggles.
For one game, though, if you can avoid turnovers against a defense that doesn't force many, and if the defense can do what it does best (take the ball away), that can help give an underdog like Tampa Bay a chance.
Somehow win on third down
The Falcons' best strength lines up directly with the Bucs' biggest weakness: Atlanta has the league's No. 1 third-down offense (46.4 percent conversions), and Tampa Bay has easily the league's worst third-down defense, allowing 48.3 percent conversions.
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That was evident in the first meeting three weeks ago in Atlanta as the Falcons went 11-for-14, and that was with DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David on the field for the Bucs.
A week after the Falcons' Julio Jones went for 253 receiving yards against the Bucs, the Vikings held him to two catches for 24 yards and, more impressively, held Atlanta to 1-for-10 on third down in a 14-9 Minnesota win. That has to be the model for a Bucs upset, perhaps the polar opposite of that first meeting in Atlanta.
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.