Commentary | Sunday's game will test Tampa Bay Buccaneers' playoff mettle

adell@bradenton.comNovember 25, 2012 

TAMPA

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play their most important game Sunday since the Jon Gruden era.

It should tell us whether Tampa Bay is just an improvement over its 2011 and 2010 models or a playoff contender.

The 9-1 Atlanta Falcons are in town to provide the answer.

The 6-4 Bucs are dressed in question marks.

They've only beaten one team with a winning record and those 6-4 Vikings figure to melt away with five of their final six games against Chicago and Green Bay twice each and Houston.

The Bucs are a stat geek's nightmare.

They are too young and brazen to believe they are not supposed to be a playoff contender.

Trying to analyze this team through numbers risks being committed to the MIT rehabilitation center for overwhelmed mathematicians.

The Bucs and New Orleans Saints lead the NFC in points per game (28.7)

and are the top two teams in average yards per snap. They also have the most porous defenses.

But the Bucs are third in the league in points off turnovers with 83, and that covers up a lot of ugliness.

Tampa Bay is No. 1 in run defense, allowing 81.8 yards per game, but last in pass defense, surrendering 312.6 yards per game, and 29th in total defense (394.4 avg).

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan leads the NFL in completions and passing yards. He must have spent the week dreaming how he was going to carve up Tampa Bay's young cornerbacks.

The Bucs have faced four quality quarterbacks and lost to all of them: Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Tony Romo and rookie sensation Robert Griffin III.

But all those numbers are as valuable as a pile of dirty laundry. Intangibles make the Bucs special, and the credit goes to rookie head coach Greg Schiano, who is anything but a novice, according to Vincent Jackson.

The free agent receiver is responsible more than anyone for Tampa Bay's resurgent offense, and the former San Diego Charger passes that credit onto Schiano.

"He is at the top of the line when it comes to game preparation," Jackson said. "He wants us to be the most prepared team as well as one of the smartest. There is not a detail he misses during the week of preparation. They spend a lot of hours educating us for all the situations that come up in a game."

The planning could be crucial because nearly all of the games with the Falcons in recent years have been close. Atlanta has won six of the past seven, but three have been decided by four points or fewer and six by 10 or fewer points.

The Bucs are coming off a comeback overtime win over Carolina, which Jackson credits to Schiano's preparation. It was their first victory when they had a negative turnover margin.

"You prepare for the worst and you will be ready for anything," Jackson said. "We were sputtering on offense, but no one panicked and our coaches made the necessary adjustments. It's about playing smart, taking care of the football and not beating yourself."

It falls in line with Schiano's philosophy that you don't talk about how important a game is or try to figure out whether it's going to be a high or low scoring game because there are too many variables.

"What they need to hear are the things that are going to allow us to win that game. My job is to get them filled with what it takes to do that; not the result, but the process," Schiano said.

There isn't any reason to believe the Bucs can't win. The teams have played seven common opponents, and the big difference has been Atlanta's ability to finish. Six of the Falcons past seven games have been decided by seven points or fewer.

During the last five weeks, you could make a case that the Bucs have been better and their quarterback Josh Freeman has outplayed Ryan.

The Falcons' offense ranks fourth in passing yards (292.1) and 28th in rushing. They throw the ball 60 percent of the time and, given the Bucs' ability to stop the run, this looks like a 50- to 60-pass day for Ryan.

Jackson is averaging a league best 20.5 yards per reception, which is the highest of his eight-year career. His seven TD catches are just two short of his career best (2011 and '09).

The Falcons are 26th in run defense and seventh against the pass, so you would expect the Bucs to try and run the ball with Doug Martin, who is third in the league with 1,000 yards rushing.

Martin has been at his best breaking tackles, and the Falcons are allowing 3.1 yards per carry after contact in rushing, the second highest in the league.

Ryan had an uncharacteristic day against Arizona last week, throwing a career-high five interceptions. When he was under pressure, the quarterback was 2-for-11 with two interceptions.

Given Schiano's style, Ryan can expect a heavy dose of blitzes. How he deals with it likely will determine the game's outcome.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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