By Andrew Kahn
Week 3’s Thursday night matchup features two NFC South teams that made headlines for all the wrong reasons last season. The Falcons were among the biggest surprises, going 4-12 after three straight playoff appearances. The Bucs, dealing with far lower expectations, also went 4-12, after starting 0-8. Along the way, quarterback Josh Freeman was released, the team dealt with a MRSA outbreak in the locker room, and fan apathy grew. After the season, coach Greg Schiano and the general manager were fired. Eyeing bounce-back seasons, Atlanta is 1-1 with a win over divisional foe New Orleans. Tampa Bay is 0-2 after low-scoring home losses.
When Tampa Bay has the ball:
Apparently impressed by his play in Chicago, new coach Lovie Smith has gone with 35-year-old career back-up Josh McCown as his starting quarterback over Mike Glennon, who was coming off a decent rookie year. In the opener against a stout Carolina defense, McCown threw for just 183 yards and two interceptions. Aside from three scrambles from McCown and Jorvorskie Lane’s lone carry for 54 yards, the Tampa Bay run offense was meager. Bobby Rainey had a nice game on the ground last week against St. Louis, but McCown again couldn’t find any targets down the field. The stats for their leading receivers, Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, would be OK if they represented one game, not two.
Atlanta, however, may be the ideal opponent. The Falcons have given up the most yards in the NFL, most of them through the air. Tampa Bay can’t match the Saints’ or Bengals’ aerial attack, but if they can’t get it going on Thursday, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.
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When Atlanta has the ball:
Matt Ryan shredded the Saints for a career-high 448 yards in the opener and threw 20 incompletions—three of which were picked—last week. The difference, according to most, is how well Atlanta’s offensive line plays. CBSSports.com NFL writer Ryan Wilson wrote this week that the Falcons have been “exposed” for their weak line (a problem he thinks they share with Tampa, by the way), and is “convinced that Atlanta is an 8-8 team at best.” Can the line keep Ryan standing tomorrow? Getting Jake Matthews, who missed last week, back will help. If Ryan has time to throw, he’ll do what he normally does—find stud receivers like Julio Jones, who is expected to play after tweaking his ankle last week. Jones did practice on Tuesday, but Roddy White didn’t. However, at this stage of his career, his goal is simply to be healthy for game day, and he’s expected to play as well.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Mason Foster are unlikely to suit up. The Bucs have only forced one turnover this season and don’t look nearly dominant enough to make up for the less-than-stellar offense.
Prediction: Atlanta 31, Tampa Bay 17
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about the NFL and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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