TAMPA, Fla. — No more chatter about whether the surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the best team in the NFC. The streaking Atlanta Falcons ended that discussion and have a chance to put even more distance between the division rivals.
A month after leaving Bucs coach Raheem Morris little choice but to back off a bold declaration he made before taking the NFL's youngest roster into the Georgia Dome for a first-place showdown, the NFC South-leading Falcons have the top record in the conference and are showing no signs of slowing down.
While Tampa Bay (7-4) hasn't exactly fallen apart since coming within a yard of pulling off a fourth-quarter comeback that would have put them on top of the division, Atlanta (9-2) has won five straight and is on course to possibly earn homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
The third-place Bucs enter Sunday's rematch at Raymond James Stadium coming off a 17-10 loss to Baltimore and desperately needing to win to avoid dropping three games behind the Falcons in the standings.
"This is a real big game for us. Everybody in the locker room knows that," Atlanta receiver Roddy White said.
"We know if we can win, we can kind of separate ourselves from them and not look back at the end of the season."
Tampa Bay feels the urgency, too.
A win not only would nudge them closer to the Falcons and second-place New Orleans, but help them keep pace among a pack of teams in playoff contention.
"This is almost a must-win," Bucs rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said before quickly reconsidering his choice of words.
"Not really an almost, it is a must-win," McCoy added. "We've got to get this."
Morris drew attention to himself and his young, improving team last month when he said the Bucs, who won just three games a year ago, deserved to be considered the best in the NFC because — despite two lopsided losses — they shared the best record in the conference.
Since falling 27-21 at Atlanta, when the Falcons stopped rookie LeGarrette Blount near the goal line in the closing minutes on Nov. 7, the league's youngest coach has tempered his comments about where the Bucs stand among elite teams.
Instead, he talks about the growth of second-year quarterback Josh Freeman and how Tampa Bay is committed to building a roster capable of winning for years to come.
The 34-year-old coach also cautions against judging the Bucs based on a 7-0 record against teams with losing records, compared to 0-4 against opponents with winning marks.
"We're not a finished product. ... We're still a work in progress," Morris said. "But these guys are getting better and bettter."
The same can also be said of the Falcons, who kept their winning streak alive with Matt Ryan leading a late field goal drive to beat Green Bay 20-17 after the Packers scored a touchdown to tie the score with under a minute remaining.
The third-year quarterback has completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 1,300 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception during the five-game surge. Atlanta has not turned the ball over in the past four weeks.
"Matt's just doing a good job of taking care of the ball, not getting in bad situations," White said, explaining the franchise-best stretch without a turnover. "Even if he's taking a sack, he's keeping the ball close to him, just not giving it away to the defense. That's a big key in this league, not turning the ball over and just keeping it to yourself."
Having one of the most balanced offenses in the league has helped, too.
Ryan has thrown for 19 touchdowns and White tops the NFL in receptions (84) and the NFC in receiving yards (1,066). But with Michael Turner also on pace to rush for 1,400 yards, the Falcons are hardly one dimensional.
Turner, who's run for 974 yards and seven TDs, went for 107 yards and two scores in the earlier meeting against Tampa Bay.
Morris said forcing turnovers and stopping Atlanta on third down will be critical.
"You've got to get the ball into Freeman's hands, and our offense, and let those guys try to control the ball to keep Matt Ryan and that dangerous offense off the field," the Tampa Bay coach said.
"If you can go out there and generate a few turnovers, you'll have a chance. More importantly, if you can go out there and get off on third down ... you've got a better chance."
The Bucs will wear throwback orange jerseys from the late 1970's and also induct former coach John McKay into the team's Ring of Honor at halftime.
McKay's son, Rich, is Falcons president and was Tampa Bay's general manager before moving to Atlanta in 2003.
The Falcons have won four straight in the series, with none of the games being decided by more than 10 points.
"Every year, no matter what our records are, it goes right down to the end of the game and somebody happens to make a play here or there that wins it," White said. "We just want to be the team that makes the play here or there that wins it."