Atlanta Falcons (8-7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-12)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: FOX (Dick Stockton, Charles Davis)
PREDICTION: Falcons 20-12
KEYS TO THE GAME: While the Bucs have vastly improved their pass defense since coach Raheem Morris took over play-calling duties for the first meeting (a 20-17 Falcons victory Nov. 29), they're still allowing 156.5 yards per game on the ground. The Falcons will pound RBs Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood and try to set up play-action for QB Matt Ryan, who could be without TE Tony Gonzalez (calf). The Bucs' ground game is equally important as Tampa Bay attempts to protect rookie QB Josh Freeman. The Falcons have clamped down on their run defense of late, limiting Buffalo to 2.2 yards per carry last Sunday.
FAST FACTS: Falcons WR Roddy White has joined Andre Rison as the only Falcons with three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. ... The Bucs have allowed 17.4 points per game since Morris took over the defense, compared to 29 under Jim Bates.
--QB Matt Ryan (turf toe) participated in his first practice of the week on a limited basis. He was off on Wednesday in order to manage his turf toe injury.
--RB Michael Turner (right high ankle sprain) did not practice and is unlikely to play this week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
--CB Christopher Owens has played in all 15 games, while starting the last five. He has 23 tackles and had his first career interception last week against Buffalo.
--OL Todd McClure is set to make his 128th consecutive starter.
--TE Tony Gonzalez needs four catches in order to achieve 1,000 career catches. He'd become the seventh player in league history to reach the plateau.
--DT Chris Hovan (illness) did not practice Thursday. He is expected to play in Sunday's game against the Falcons.
--C Jeff Faine (back) did not practice Thursday. Faine missed several practices last week with an elbow injury and still managed to start at New Orleans.
--RB Derrick Ward (knee/thigh) was limited in practice on Thursday. Ward did not finish the game in the Bucs' 20-17 overtime win at New Orleans last week.
--G Jeremy Zuttah (toe) was limited in practice on Thursday but is expected to start against the Falcons Sunday.
--DT Roy Miller (ankle) was limited in practice Thursday but is expected to play against Atlanta.
--TE Kellen Winslow (knee) had full participation in practice Thursday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Falcons are within one game of ending the franchise curse that has defied logic since the team was born into the league in 1966. Despite shorts periods of success in each decade, the Falcons have never posted back-to-back winning seasons. A win or a tie against Tampa Bay and that little "record" is history. The Falcons could finish 9-7 or 8-7-1, with a win or tie.
"These guys know that we have to go out and play well this week," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I talk to them all the time about going out and playing their best."
The new regime seems a bit miffed that they have to deal with "the record." But it's a part of what they bought into when the elected to work for a franchise with such a dubious track record.
"The other thing that we talk about is that we want to become a team that sustains good play and also be a team that is relevant every year," Smith said. "To be relevant in this league, Thomas (Dimitroff) and I talked about it, when we first got here, when you are a relevant team you are having winning seasons. So I think it's very important for us as a football team to reach some of the goals that we set."
The Falcons know beating Tampa Bay, despite their 3-12 records, won't be easy. "I think the last four weeks they've played as well as anybody in the league," Smith said.
"They've won two in a row, both on the road. They went to Seattle and had a big when. Then last week they won in overtime against New Orleans. I think they are playing very inspired football on defense. They're running the football, attacking the line of scrimmage, and doing some really good things."
The Falcons have noted the re-emergence of running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. "Cadillac I thought ran the ball extremely well last week against the really good Saints defense," Smith said. "I think they'll want to come in and try to run the football against us. They're going to play the play-action stuff and try to get the ball into the hands of number 82 (Kellen Winslow) and 89 (Antonio Bryant)."
Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman's continued development has been impressive. "He's a big guy that's got the skills set to throw the football, and I think he's learning from week to week," Smith said. "He put up a bunch of yards in a couple of those ball games. He had a couple of throws that he'd like to have back and he shows that he learns from it the next week."
Postseason football is becoming a stranger to Bucs fans. For the second straight year and the fifth time in seven seasons, the Bucs will not reach the playoffs. At 3-12, the Bucs are hoping to finish on a three-game winning streak with a victory over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday.
But it's an empty feeling for NFL teams that don't make the playoffs. In fact, Tampa Bay has not won a playoff game since Super Bowl XXXVII.
"That's what you play for. If you're not playing to go to the tournament, I don't know what you're doing it for," coach Raheem Morris said. "The only thing we play for and the only thing we coach for is for an opportunity to win that ring. You've got one as an assistant, now you want one as a head coach and all these players want one. I don't know how many of these players have that ring or how many of them still know what it looks like, for that matter.
"You've got to try to get back every year and that's the whole goal. The Pittsburgh Steelers won one last year and I bet they don't feel like they won it because they want to go back and have an opportunity to compete for it again. It's that type of drive that makes the NFL special every year."
Sunday's game will not be blacked out, although tickets are available. But this season, it's been hard not to notice 15,000 empty seats at Raymond James Stadium.
"Winning brings all that (back)," Morris said. "I don't think that's an issue around here, especially in Tampa. People love football. They can't wait to get back. When you're down in the fourth quarter and they're gone, you know why. Then you're looking at Giants fans and Jets fans and all those people. I'll tell you what though, those New Orleans Saints stood in there the whole game. That was an eerie silence leaving there but it seemed like there were still 70,000 of them looking at me when I walked out. They were angry and quiet.
"We'll get to that day one day and our fans will understand. They're starting to come and they'll show up. Right now, they're rushing to the tailgate. We've got to get them to stand in there and we will. That's our job."