ATLANTA — Enough talk. Time to start sorting things out in the NFC South.
Two parts of this intriguing three-way race will be matched Sunday, when the home-loving Atlanta Falcons play host to the surprising — and downright brash — Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The teams are tied atop the division standings at 5-2, with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints (4-3) lurking another game back. Don’t think the Falcons haven’t thought about how important this divisional game could be when the season is done, even though it’s only the midway point.
“You want to put yourself in good position for the end of the year,” said receiver Roddy White, looking ahead all the way to the next-to-last game against the Saints. “When it comes down to us playing New Orleans, we don’t want to be any games behind.”
Of course, Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris has a somewhat different take on how things will play out.
Just one season after the Bucs went 3-13, Morris has proclaimed they are the top team in the entire NFC. Everyone else, in his mind, is playing for second.
“Do we believe we can be the best and we can compete with the best every day?” he said, refusing every opportunity to soften his stance. “Yes.”
Morris has sure stirred things up with his bravado, but that’s the sort of mindset he wants to install in his team. While the Bucs have lost twice by a combined 69-19, they have won four times by a total of 10 points, showing plenty of toughness in the fourth quarter.
“We’re learning how to win football games,” he said. “We’re learning how to win close ones, learning how to come back. Everything we do right now is a lesson.”
The Falcons were taken aback by Morris’ bold assessment of the NFC hierarchy — there’s no shortage of material for the bulletin board, that’s for sure — but they’re not surprised by the Bucs’ stunning turnaround from a year ago.
“In this league, there’s a fine line between being 0-16 and 16-0,” Atlanta linebacker Mike Peterson said.
Atlanta is coming off a bye week, which gave cornerback Dunta Robinson a chance to get over a concussion he sustained in a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit with Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson. Robinson missed one game and probably wouldn’t have been able to play a week ago, but he’s expecting to start against the Bucs.
Under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have been dominant at the Georgia Dome, posting a 16-3 mark that includes pulling out a last-second victory over the Bucs in 2009. Matt Ryan was knocked out of that game with a toe injury, but Chris Redman threw a touchdown pass to White with 23 seconds remaining for a 20-17 win.
Morris dropped to his knees in disbelief after the Falcons scored, his team slipping to 1-10 in his rookie year as coach. But the turning point, it turned out, was right around the corner.
The Bucs won two of their last three — losing only to Atlanta in the season finale — and carried that strong finish into 2010.
“We have a little swagger about ourselves,” left tackle Donald Penn said.
There’s no lack of confidence in Atlanta, either — especially when playing at the Dome. Ryan has lost only once in 17 home games as a pro starter.
“He’s certainly a guy who can make you, and force you, to make mistakes,” Morris said. “We’ll go out there with a lot of enjoyment and try to break his record, get a win out there and make him 16-2, because that’s our job.”
There’s a lot more to the Falcons’ offense than just Ryan. He’s got weapons all around led by White, who’s on pace for a staggering 123 catches and is coming off a 201-yard performance — the second-most in Falcons’ history — against Cincinnati.
If the Bucs spend all day double-teaming White, Ryan can look to a future Hall of Famer at tight end with Tony Gonzalez (29 catches, three TDs) or hand off to a bruising runner in Michael Turner (587 yards, 4.5 per carry). Tampa Bay gave up more than 200 yards rushing in each of its losses, and the pass rush hasn’t generated much pressure, with No. 3 overall pick Gerald McCoy still looking for his first sack as a pro.
Then again, no team has been more opportunistic than Tampa Bay, which has a plus-eight turnover margin and three interception returns for touchdowns.
“I’ve got to make good decisions and be accurate with the football,” Ryan said. “If I do that, we’ll be OK.”
Josh Freeman has made great strides since taking over as the Bucs’ quarterback midway through last season. He’s completing more than 60 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only three interceptions.
“There’s very little indecision in my game right now,” he said. “I understand what coverage we’re getting. I understand the protections and there are no ‘Oh man, I’ve just got to throw it up plays.’ I feel like if I can continue to play ball secure, we’ve got a chance in all these games.”
Rookie Mike Williams has given the team a big-play threat at receiver. Another rookie, LeGarrette Blount, amped up the running game the last two weeks, piling up 192 yards on an average of 5.8 per carry.
“He runs angry,” Freeman said. “It’s awesome to see. He’s playing some real good football right now.”
Smith knows this is a big game for both teams, but he’s done a good job of keeping the Falcons on an even keel no matter the circumstances. He certainly wasn’t looking to match Morris’ bombast.
“The winner of this game,” Smith said, “will be the better of the two teams on Sunday.”
There’s been enough talk anyway.