Falcons, Buccaneers set to wrap up disappointing seasons
Two of the more disappointing teams in the NFL will wrap up their season when the Atlanta Falcons visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in a matchup of NFC South rivals.
The Falcons (6-9) have won two games in a row and are still far from achieving their expectations but there remains plenty of motivation for the club to finish on a strong note.
If Atlanta can knock off the Buccaneers for the second time this season, it will finish with a 7-9 record. A win, which would hurt the team’s draft standing, would leave the club in sole possession of second place in the division.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn sees the importance in finishing 7-9 rather than 6-10.
“The two numbers don’t correlate to me more than just getting a win,” Quinn said. “Seeing the guys in the locker room, their energy for one another, that’s what kind of lit me up to know that we have a lot of fighters and guys that it’s really important to.”
Quinn will finish with the worst record of his four-year tenure. After going 8-8 in 2015, Atlanta was 11-5 and went to the Super Bowl in 2016, and 10-6 last season before losing to the eventual champion Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs.
The Falcons were ravaged by injuries throughout the season and endured a 1-4 start, but revived their playoff hopes by winning three straight — only to see those dreams dashed by a five-game losing streak. Quinn views winning the last two games as a positive sign moving forward.
“To see that kind of connection and toughness from this group, I’m proud of that,” Quinn said. “It’s been a difficult time, man, no question about it, in terms of not taking our opportunities when they were there.
“But to see the fight and resolve, that means a lot, and I know we’ll fight our tails off again this week.”
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is 5-9 and head coach Dirk Koetter knows his job is in jeopardy. Koetter is only 19-28 and his future with the franchise, along with general manager Jason Licht, is in doubt.
Koetter has made plenty of mistakes since he went 9-7 in his first year as the team’s head coach in 2016. He waited too long before dismissing defensive coordinator Mike Smith and may have been too quick to bench quarterback Jameis Winston after three games, but Koetter was not interested in revisiting either of those decisions.
“You can’t play the what-if game,” Koetter said. “Asked and answered. I don’t play the what-if game ever because it doesn’t do any good. You can’t change what’s already done.”
Winston nearly rallied Tampa Bay from a 15-point deficit in the first meeting at Atlanta in Week 6, throwing for 395 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in a 34-29 loss.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan also had a big day against the Buccaneers with 355 yards and three scoring passes and may have to carry the offense again with running back Tevin Coleman dealing with a groin injury. Last week, Ryan threw touchdown passes to wide receivers Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley in the same game for the first time in 2018.
Jones had 10 catches for 144 yards in the first matchup, while Ridley has tied a franchise rookie record for most receiving touchdowns with nine. His 789 receiving yards leads all NFL rookies.
“He has had a great year,” said Ryan of Ridley, Atlanta’s first-round pick (No. 26) overall in this year’s draft. “He has done a lot of really good things for us. When he has gotten the opportunities, he has made plays.”
Tampa Bay ranks 29th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game but new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner managed to turn the unit around in the second half of the season. The Buccaneers were allowing 34.6 points per game before Duffner took over. They have allowed an average of 25.7 points since.
Duffner, 65, has coached football for more than four decades, most of it in the NFL. He knows when you lose, there will be changes.
“It’s what makes the business tough, but you kind of know it going in,” Duffner said. “I think your focus is always one game at a time. That’s what it is. It’s one week at a time and one year at a time. You focus in on that and that’s what this business promotes in terms of how things go.”