Who has the edge in Thursday night's matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Don Banks makes his pick below.
• Last week: 10-6; Season: 20-12 (.625).
• Best pick in Week 2: Green Bay 26, NY Jets 21 (actual score: Packers 31-24).
• Worst pick in Week 2: Tennessee 27, Dallas 17 (actual score: Cowboys 26-10).
Tampa Bay just lost at home to Derek Anderson and Austin Davis, a pair of unheralded reserve quarterbacks elevated to starting gigs via injury, so what hope do the Bucs have of beating Matt Ryan in the Georgia Dome, which has historically been his comfort zone? Last year in a 31-23 win against visiting Tampa Bay, Ryan produced a career-best 148.6 passer rating, which was exactly 100 points higher than the 48.6 showing he mustered in last week’s 24-10 loss at Cincinnati.
Neither of these teams have inspired any early season confidence, but Ryan’s 5-1 record at home against the Bucs is as good an indicator of what to expect as anything I could dig up. Atlanta’s offense ranks second in yards so far in 2014 with 438.5 per game, but the Falcons followed up their monster 568-yard performance in a Week 1 overtime upset of New Orleans with an underwhelming performance against the Bengals. Ryan was just 24-of-44 for 231 yards last week, tossing three interceptions and just one scoring pass.
But don’t count the Bucs out, because Atlanta’s defense has been abysmal through two weeks. The Falcons have surrendered 472 yards in each of their first two games -- ranking dead last in the league -- and their 635 passing yards allowed is second worst, trailing only the Saints (647). Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but Atlanta’s pass rush is non-existent. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL still seeking its first sack of the season, and the only quarterback hit they’ve registered did little good, since it came on last week’s 76-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Mohamed Sanu.
After facing Drew Brees and Andy Dalton in consecutive weeks, the Falcons defense shouldn’t receive quite that level of challenge from Tampa Bay’s struggling new starter, Josh McCown. So far, McCown is looking more like the journeyman he was before last year’s breakthrough season in Chicago, throwing three interceptions in the Bucs’ two losses, making a handful of poor decisions and adding a spark only with his legs on two rushing touchdowns against the Rams.
If Atlanta is going to truly be a factor in the NFC South this year, this is a game it has to have, given the Bucs’ growing injury list and sagging confidence. But the same can be said of Tampa Bay, which should play with a sense of desperation as it begins a three-game road trip that continues on to Pittsburgh and New Orleans in the coming weeks. After last year’s disastrous 0-8 start, the Bucs know well how a season can essentially end before October arrives.