Though the advent to their 2011 season was auspicious, Tampa Bay turned out to be the turkey of the conference last season, losing their last 10 contests with an averaging margin of defeat of 19 points in their final five ball games. The start of the current campaign carried over similar barnyard tendencies, as the Buccaneers lost three of their first four games while the unsportsmanlike actions of new coach Greg Schiano resembled that of another farm animal.
Yet a fall revival has eradicated this fowl reputation, as the Bucs have won five of their last six outings to morph into the toast of the NFC. And with Thanksgiving right around the corner, Tampa is looking to cook their own bird for the holiday festivities in the Atlanta Falcons. For their part, the Dirty Birds were as smooth as grandma's gravy through the first two months of 2012, emerging victorious in their first eight engagements.
Alas, the last two weeks have been somewhat of a mincemeat pie, as Mike Smith's squad lost to the Saints and struggled mightily against a destitute and depleted Cardinals club. Though the Falcons can right the ship and take a commanding lead in the division with a win, a Buccaneers' pillaging puts the NFC South mantle up for grabs, making this matchup the WhatIfSports.com Game of the Week.
Tampa's improvement directly coincides with the rejuvenation of quarterback Josh Freeman. After posting impressive figures in his first full season as starting signal-caller in 2010 (3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns, six interceptions), the Kansas State product saw a precipitous drop in production last year, struggling to the tune of 20 scores (16 passing, four rushing) versus 27 turnovers (22 picks, five fumbles).
This regression seemed to continue this September, as Freeman had five touchdowns, four interceptions and a paltry average of 197.5 passing yards per game. However, since this juncture, few field generals have been as sharp, with Freeman rocking a solid stat line of 16 aerial end-zone excursions, three picks and 285 yards per contest.
Helping Freeman in this offensive endeavor has been rookie rusher Doug Martin. Hailing from Boise State, Martin has exactly 1,000 yards on just 197 attempts this season, adding another 319 yards in the receiving forum. Also helping the cause has been offseason acquisition Vincent Jackson, who has grabbed 42 balls for 863 yards and seven trips to pay dirt. The dexterity from this trio has correlated to 28.7 points per game, second-best in the conference.
The Falcons can somewhat second this scoreboard-lighting mentality, although the Atlanta air game has recently been grounded. Make no mistake, Matt Ryan and company are still attacking from the air early and often, ranking third in the NFL in passing yards. Unfortunately, the early-season efficiency has been absent as of late. After accumulating 13 touchdowns in the first five games, Matty Ice has tossed more passes to the wrong team (nine) than scores (seven) in his last five outings.
Given that the light from Michael "the Burner" Turner seems to have been extinguished (Turner has failed to surpass 65 yards rushing in five of his last six contests), it's imperative that Ryan rediscover his autumn form.
Luckily for Ryan, the Atlanta defense has been one of the best in the business, as the Falcons are only one of seven units holding opponents under 20 points per game this season. With an opportunistic mentality in hand (the Falcons are tied for seventh in takeaways), Atlanta's resistance provides a safety net for Ryan and the offensive assault to get their strategy in line.
So who comes out on top in the divisional showdown? According to the award-winning WhatIfSports.com simulation engine, the Falcons pull out the victory 56.8 percent of the time by an average margin of 23-20. For the rest of this week's predictions, check below:
Each Tuesday, WhatIfSports.com's NFL simulation engine will provide you with predictions, box scores and statistics for every NFL game that week. The NFL simulation engine generates detailed information including the home team's chances of winning (Home Win %), average score and comprehensive box score link. If you want to share your new found NFL knowledge with friends and family, make sure to check out our NFL Widgets on the WhatIf To Go page or click on the social networking share bar located at the top and bottom of the article.
The statistical inputs to the thousands of NFL games simulated are based on rigorous analysis of each team's roster, depth chart and statistically based player ranking. Roster modifications have been made for injuries and suspensions and those players are not part of their team's game simulation.
To account for injuries and roster moves announced late in the week, we will be re-simulating some games on Thursdays throughout the 2012 NFL season.
Check out our 2012 NFL Season-to-Date page to follow our accuracy week-to-week and find Locks and Upsets of the Week.