The 9-1 Atlanta Falcons, owners of the best record in the NFC, are coming to Tampa this weekend to take on a team they have beaten six out of the last seven times, with a chance to hit double digits in victories for the third straight season. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are 6-4, three games back in the standings…and favored?
They are if you agree with the assembled experts at ESPN.com. That group has made its picks for Week 12, and eight of the 14 believe the Buccaneers will protect their home and win their fifth straight game, in the process pulling to within two in the NFC South race.
Of the 14 experts (which includes an “Accuscore” pick and a “Pick-Em” choice that’s a collection of fan votes), Seth Wickersham has the best prediction record this year, at 114-45, and he has tabbed the Falcons. However, Chris Mortensen is right behind at 113-46, and he favors the Buccaneers.
That 8-6 split still makes the Bucs-Falcons tilt one of the toughest for the experts to call. The group had come down evenly on the Washington-Dallas game on Thanksgiving (won by the Redskins), and they have done the same with the Packers trip play the Giants on Sunday. Otherwise, only Tennessee at Jacksonville (8-6 in Tennessee’s favor) and St. Louis at Arizona (8-6 in the Rams’ favor) have caused a similar split. The Bucs-Falcons and Packers-Giants games are the only ones out of those that feature two teams with winning records.
You don’t have to tell the combatants that this one is probably going to be close. The Bucs and Falcons have a history of tight finishes, even during the Falcons’ current run of victories, and they come into every matchup expecting more of the same.
“It’s definitely a rivalry,” said Falcons QB Matt Ryan. “Any time you’re in division, those games always carry a little extra weight. With Tampa, the games have come down to the fourth quarter seemingly every time we’ve played. We’ve come up short some times and we’ve won our fair share, too. In these kinds of games, you just know going into it that it’s going to be a battle and it’s going to come down to a handful of plays throughout the game that are going to determine the outcome. You just have to be prepared for that and have your mind right and your game plan right so you can execute well.”
Added Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith: “I’ve said this many times – I think the NFC South is the most competitive division in all of football, year-in and year-out. I think a lot of it has to do with the proximity of the teams geographically. It’s always been hard-fought games and we anticipate it will be the same type of game this weekend. Really, for the most part, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing, whether you’re playing in Tampa or here in Atlanta. They are very competitive ballgames.”