ATLANTA (AP) – Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are sailing the NFC South. The Atlanta Falcons will…
ATLANTA (AP) – Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are sailing the NFC South.
The Atlanta Falcons would like to put a little pressure on the defensive Super Bowl champions.
After losing at Tampa Bay in Week 2, the Falcons got another crack at their division rival on Sunday.
Tampa Bay (8-3) beats Atlanta (5-6) and New Orleans (5-6) at NFC South (8-3), and Carolina is trailing (5-7) in the half-game.
But Falcons coach Arthur Smith said his team has shown significant improvement since the Buccaneers lost 48-25 again in September.
“We find ways to win matches,” he said. “We are 5-2 in one game. That was a big thing here. You are trying to build a winning culture. Again, the ultimate goal is to build a sustainable football team that wins football matches. So that is what we are trying to achieve in the short and long term.”
Pirates, of course, have more pressing goals. With the division title seemingly a foregone conclusion, Tampa Bay needs to keep winning to gain an advantage in the first round and home grounds throughout the playoffs.
The Bucs are vying with Arizona (9-2) and Green Bay (9-3) for first place in the NFC.
“There’s still a long way to go,” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Aryan said. “The Saints are a hell of a football team. This defense – I’d never write them off. Carolina played good and bad, and Atlanta is an outside playoff game. Three games ahead now, (but) we still have a long way to go.”
With two straight wins, the Bucs got rid of a two-game losing streak that seemed longer because it was confined to a farewell week.
Last week, Tampa Bay rebounded after trailing the first half by 10 points to score a 38-31 win over Indianapolis.
“To the next day,” said Leonard Fournette, who was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. “We know this is a division and football match in December. Every win counts, so we need every game.”
Known as a punishing runner, Fortnite has a bigger role in the scrolling game in his second year playing with Brady.
Fortnite lunged for 621 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s second on the team with 51 receptions for another 354 yards and a TD.
“The main focus is on football in December,” he said. “We know how important this is as far as qualifying and getting an advantage on home soil, so we’re trying to figure it out.”
Fortnite was in a monster vs. ponies mode. He rushes for 100 yards and three TDs, including the decisive score with 20 seconds left. He also got Brady’s only TD pass.
In his first season with the Falcons, Cordaryl Patterson clearly emerged as the most valuable player.
A hybrid back can do pretty much everything – run the ball, catch passes, and rebound kicks. Now, he’s also listed as a backup safety on the depth chart after lining up in that position to play once in last week’s victory over Jacksonville.
While the Hawks have no plans to make Patterson a regular part of the defensive rotation, they are hoping to play enough on that side of the line to get intercepted.
Tampa Bay is more interested in his offensive line.
“Stop Cordarrelle Patterson, for sure, in the kick-and-run game, and as a receiver,” Arians said. “He’s an explosive player.”
Run at your own risk
Tampa Bay leads the NFL in running defense, allowing only 81 yards per game.
But the Bucs have been so good against the rush game that competitors rarely try to test them.
That puts an extra burden on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who doesn’t have much of a gun in passing game after Patterson and tight end rookie Kyle Bates.
“We haven’t been in a big tempo in the passing game and I think a lot of it comes back early to get some momentum,” Ryan said. “I can do a better job than I’ve done in the past two 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 players in a row at their retractable-roof stadium since their last home win, with a 43-6 victory over the Raiders on November 29, 2020.
“We want to win at home,” Smith said. “We appreciate our fans. Our fans did a great job. It was really nice to see so many of our fans in Jacksonville there. That was great. So, we have to do our part at home.”
The Bucs are unbeaten in five home games, which makes their 3-3 track record look a bit disappointing.
But Arianes noted that teams know how difficult it is to win road games now that fans are back in the stands after being frequently banned from last season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone talks about our problems down the road,” Arianes said. “We are on the road now 0.500, which is very good in the old days. When you have fans in the stands and you go and win in a place like Philly and you win in a place like Indy, these are hard-to-win stadiums.”
Associated Press sports writer Fred Goodall in Tampa contributed to this report.
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