The Atlanta Falcons have the inside track to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but it's hard to say they've looked like the conference's best club over the last month.
They won't even be the hottest team on the field Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can make a major statement by extending their winning streak to five for the first time in a decade when they face the Falcons, who have some work to do after back-to-back uneven performances.
Atlanta (9-1) has two more wins than anyone in the NFC, but it's spent most of the past two months flirting with trouble as six of its past seven games have been decided by a touchdown or fewer.
The Falcons had a close contest go the other way Nov. 11 in New Orleans, falling 31-27, and trailed for much of the day in Week 11 against Arizona. But Atlanta overcame Matt Ryan's five interceptions to beat the Cardinals 23-19, becoming the first team to win with its quarterback throwing five picks without a touchdown since Green Bay with Bart Starr in 1967.
"We're very, very fortunate,' coach Mike Smith acknowledged. "You've just got to keep fighting. It's amazing. The NFL is so close.'
That's certainly a reality the Bucs (6-4) could relate to during a three-game September skid in which they lost twice in the final minute, but suddenly Tampa Bay is very much a part of the postseason picture. Following three straight double-digit victories, the Bucs rallied from 11 down with six minutes left to force overtime Sunday at Carolina before winning 27-21.
"No one's coming on the sideline pointing fingers. No one's hitting the red button," receiver Vincent Jackson told the Bucs' official website. "We just continue to get back together, regroup, get with our coaches, look at the pictures, make adjustments and get ready for the next drive. As long as we continue to do that and believe in what we've been working so hard at, we'll get the result we want."
Josh Freeman has been leading the way, throwing multiple touchdown passes in six straight games while posting a 106.1 passer rating and an NFL-best 8.58 yards per attempt since Oct. 1.
The Bucs have averaged an NFC-leading 34.2 points in that stretch, and strong starts have been a key all season. Tampa Bay has scored 71 points in the first quarter - fourth-most in the NFL and already more than double what it put up in the opening 15 minutes a year ago.
"It's a collective mentality," Freeman said. "... We stay out of third-down situations that would be tough to convert, and then we convert the ones that are makeable.
"We just have to continue doing what we're doing as far as starting fast and taking the extra time throughout the week to get prepared with the opening script."
Tampa Bay is currently tied with Seattle for the NFC's second wild-card spot, but a victory Sunday could keep things interesting in the South race as it tries to win five straight for the first time since 2002.
Freeman and Jackson aren't the only reasons for the Bucs' recent offensive success. Perhaps the biggest is running back Doug Martin, who has run for 592 yards and five touchdowns over the past four weeks and against Carolina joined Adrian Peterson as the NFL's only rookies since 2000 to gain 1,000 yards in their team's first 10 games.
It's not hard to picture Martin running well again Sunday. The Falcons are allowing 5.0 yards per carry on the ground - 30th in the league - but are expected to get linebacker Sean Weatherspoon back after a three-week absence.
Atlanta does have some other significant injury concerns, most notably receiver Julio Jones (ankle) and cornerback Asante Samuel (shoulder).
Even if Jones can't go, don't look for the Falcons to throw the ball any less often. Tampa Bay's defense is the NFL's best against the run (81.8 yards per game) and worst against the pass (312.6).
"They've played with a lead in a lot of different games, so teams have been forced to throw the ball against them," Ryan said. "I think that's part of why their statistics are the way they are."
Ryan's numbers were MVP-worthy prior to his disaster against the Cardinals, but he's really been on top of his game away from the Georgia Dome. He's thrown 19 touchdowns and just three picks in his last seven regular-season road games, completing 67.7 percent of his passes.
Visits to Tampa haven't been nearly as easy. Ryan has five touchdowns and seven INTs in four visits to central Florida, posting a 63.2 passer rating while going 2-2.
Freeman, meanwhile, has six TDs, 10 picks and a 62.5 QB rating while going 1-4 in his last five games against Atlanta.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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