The NFC South rivals have just three victories between them, yet remain confident they are capable of rebounding to enjoy greater success over the remainder of their schedules.
A year after going a NFC-best 13-3 and finishing one victory shy of reaching the Super Bowl, the Falcons (2-7) have been beset with injuries. They would be deep in the division cellar if not for Tampa Bay’s even slower start.
The Bucs (1-8) opened with eight straight losses before becoming the last team in the league to win last Monday night.
“Anytime you’re not doing what you’re expected to do, it’s a tough situation to be in. But every week, we’re just trying to get batter and trying to find ways to win games,” said Atlanta receiver Roddy White, who’s been hampered by injuries all season, including a sore left hamstring that sidelined him for three games — one of them the Falcons’ 31-23 victory over the Bucs at home on Oct. 20.
“It’s going to happen in the NFL where you have injuries and things like that,” White added, “but you’ve got to move past those things and you’ve got to go with the guys you’ve got and go out there and try to win games.”
Tampa Bay has had its share of injuries, too. Still, there’s no escaping that until the Bucs faced the Dolphins, they had not played well enough for an entire game to win.
The Bucs held fourth-quarter leads in four of their eight setbacks, losing each time in the final 89 seconds of regulation or overtime.
They enter a rematch against the Falcons today eager to build on giving Seattle fits before falling in OT two weeks ago, and finally getting over the hump against Miami.
“It does feel like a weight has been lifted,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
“We’re not relaxing, but we’re not thinking about (being winless) anymore. ... After getting a win, you get that feeling you’ve always been looking for,” McCoy added. “Now, it’s kind of like: ‘I need to keep feeling it,’ so we’re going to work even harder than we’ve been working to get the first win to get the second one, and the third one, and the fourth one.”
The Falcons have not gotten the desired results this season, but coach Mike Smith doesn’t fault the team’s effort.
“It’s very difficult when you don’t get the outcome that you want. Everybody has high expectations and nobody has higher expectations than our players,” Smith said.
“You can’t look at it as the season is over. The season is not over,” the coach added. “Whatever your record is, you’ve got to go out and compete each and every day.”
Five things to watch as the Falcons try to stop their three-game slide, and the Bucs attempt to build on their first victory:
ALL ON RYAN: With wide receiver Julio Jones out for the season, and White and running back Steven Jackson hobbled for much of the schedule, quarterback Matt Ryan has been carrying a heavier burden than usual for the Falcons.
They are sixth in the NFL in passing offense, but last in rushing. Jackson returned three weeks ago, but falling behind early has limited opportunities to run the ball.
STUFFING THE RUN: The Bucs set a franchise record, limiting the Dolphins to 2 yards rushing. The Falcons averaged 1-yard per carry against Tampa Bay last month, finishing with 18 yards on 18 attempts.
Ryan stepped up to pace an eight-point Atlanta win, completing 20 of 26 passes for 273 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
BABY STEPS: Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon had his first fourth-quarter comeback win against Miami, leading an 80-yard drive that put the Bucs ahead for good with 10 minutes remaining.
Before throwing a third-quarter interception, the third-round draft pick attempted 158 consecutive passes without a pick. He hasn’t been flashy, but he has improved steadily in six starts.
TRICK PLAYS: Falcons defense beware. The Bucs have scored on gadget plays the past two games, with running back Mike James flipping a 2-yard jump pass to tight end Tom Crabtree against the Seahawks, and Glennon throwing a 1-yard TD pass to left tackle Donald Penn against the Dolphins.
SLOW ’EM DOWN: The Falcons haven’t won since beating the Bucs four weeks ago.
They’ve been outscored 94-33 during their skid, losing each game by a minimum of two touchdowns.