The Atlanta Falcons are in control of their playoff destiny and their chances to repeat as NFC South champions, but they also have a pack of teams nipping at their heels for the final postseason spot in the conference. A winner of four of its last five, Atlanta visits the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night in a rematch from three weeks ago.
The Falcons are one game behind NFC South co-leaders New Orleans and Carolina but still have to play the Saints and Panthers, giving them a chance to claim the division title by winning their final three games. “Focusing on the next team could be a little bit distracting,” Falcons linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “We have to focus on (Tampa Bay) because every game at this point is a must-win.” Atlanta, which currently holds the tiebreaker over Seattle for the No. 6 seed in the NFC, beat visiting Tampa Bay 34-20 on Nov. 26, but the Buccaneers were without quarterback Jameis Winston, who will be making his third start since returning from injury. Winston rallied Tampa Bay from a 14-point deficit last week before Tampa Bay lost to Detroit 24-21 in the final minute — its third straight defeat and eighth in 10 games.
TV: 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Falcons -6. O/U: 49
ABOUT THE FALCONS (8-5): Despite surpassing 1,000 yards for the fourth consecutive year, Julio Jones was having a relatively quiet season by his lofty standards until torching Tampa Bay for 12 catches for 253 yards and a pair of touchdowns — his second and third scores of the campaign. Jones also had eight catches for 101 yards and a score at Tampa Bay in November 2016 as quarterback Matt Ryan riddled the Buccaneers for 344 yards and four touchdowns passes. Devonta Freeman has rushed for 165 yards in two games since returning from a concussion and could be in line for a heavy workload with backup Tevin Coleman in the concussion protocol. Adrian Clayborn (hamstring), who leads the team in sacks, did not practice Thursday, but coach Dan Quinn is moving Vic Beasley back into a pure pass-rushing role.
ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS (4-9): Winston, who threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns last week to erase a 14-point deficit, enjoyed plenty of success last season against Atlanta, throwing for 542 yards with seven scores against one interception. Wideout Mike Evans has been practically invisible the past two games with a combined four catches, but he had eight receptions in last month’s loss to the Falcons and lit them up for 16 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns in both meetings last season. With Doug Martin continuing to struggle, Peyton Barber has provided a jolt to the ground game with 160 yards rushing over the past two contests. Tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David missed practice, putting more pressure on a defense that surrenders a league-worst 276.1 yards passing.
1. Ryan has 17 scoring passes and five interceptions in his last eight Monday night appearances.
2. Buccaneers WR DeSean Jackson has 690 yards and three TDs in his past six Monday night games.
3. Atlanta is 8-0 when scoring at least 20 points this season.
PREDICTION: Falcons 27, Buccaneers 23