ATLANTA (AP) — Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are cruising in the NFC South.
The Atlanta Falcons would like to put a little pressure on the defending Super Bowl champions.
After losing at Tampa Bay in Week 2, the Falcons get another crack at their division rival on Sunday.
Tampa Bay (8-3) has a commanding three-game lead over Atlanta (5-6) in the NFC South, with New Orleans and Carolina (both 5-7) another half-game behind.
But Falcons coach Arthur Smith said his team has shown significant improvement since that 48-25 loss to the Buccaneers back in September.
“We’re finding ways to win games,” he said. “We’re 5-2 in one-possession games. That was a big thing here. You’re trying to build a winning culture. Again, the ultimate goal is to build a sustainable football team that wins football games. So that’s what we’re trying to accomplish short term and long term.”
The Buccaneers, of course, have more immediate goals. With the division title seemingly a foregone conclusion, Tampa Bay needs to keep winning to lock up a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Bucs are battling with Arizona (9-2) and Green Bay (9-3) for the top spot in the NFC.
“There’s still a long way to go,” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said. “The Saints are a hell of a football team. That defense — I’ll never cross them out. Carolina has played good and bad, and Atlanta is a game out of the playoffs. Three-game lead right now, (but) we’ve got a long way to go.”
With two straight victories, the Bucs have shaken off a two-game losing streak that seemed even longer because it was sandwiched around a bye week.
Last week, Tampa Bay rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit for a 38-31 win at Indianapolis.
“On to the next,” said running back Leonard Fournette, who was named NFC offensive player of the week. “We know this is a division game and December football. Every win counts, so we need every game.”
Known as a punishing runner, Fournette has a bigger role in the passing game in his second year playing with Brady.
Fournette has rushed for 621 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s second on the team with 51 receptions for another 354 yards and one TD.
“The main focus is December football,” he said. “We know how important this is as far as playoffs and having home-field advantage, so we’re trying to figure that out.”
Fournette was in beast mode vs. the Colts. He rushed for 100 yards and three TDs, including the clinching score with 20 seconds remaining. He also caught Brady’s only TD pass.
In his first season with the Falcons, Cordarrelle Patterson has clearly emerged as their most valuable player.
The hybrid back can pretty much do it all — run the ball, catch passes, return kicks. Now, he’s also listed as a backup safety on the depth chart after lining up at that position for one play in last week’s victory over Jacksonville.
While the Falcons have no plans to make Patterson a regular part of the defensive rotation, he hopes to play enough on that side of the line to get an interception.
Tampa Bay is more concerned with his offensive repertoire.
“Stop Cordarrelle Patterson, for sure, in the kicking and the running game, and as a receiver,” Arians said. “He’s an explosive player.”
RUN AT YOUR OWN RISK
Tampa Bay leads the NFL in run defense, allowing just 81 yards per game.
But the Bucs have been so good against the rushing game that opponents rarely even attempt to test them.
That puts an added burden on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who doesn’t have a whole lot of weapons in the passing game beyond Patterson and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.
“We just haven’t been in a rhythm that much in the pass game and I think a lot of it comes down to early just getting some momentum,” Ryan said. “I can do a better job than I’ve done the last couple of weeks.”
The Falcons have yet to win in Atlanta this season, losing all four games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Overall, the Falcons have lost six in a row at their retractable-roof stadium since their last home victory, a 43-6 triumph over the Raiders on Nov. 29, 2020.
“We want to win at home,” Smith said. “We appreciate our fans. Our fans did a great job. It was really cool to see down in Jacksonville a lot of our fans there. That was awesome. So, we got to do our part at home.”
The Bucs are unbeaten in five home games, which makes their 3-3 record on the road seem a bit underwhelming.
But Arians pointed out that teams are getting reacquainted with just how difficult it is to win road games road now that fans are back in the stands after being barred much of last season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everybody talks about our road woes,” Arians said. “We’re .500 on the road right now, and that’s pretty damn good in the old days. When there are fans in the stands and you go and win in a place like Philly and you go win in a place like Indy, those are hard stadiums to win in.”
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa contributed to this report.