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Falcons hope to 'run through' Bucs
New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper, left, defensive end Will Smith (91), and linebacker Scott Shanle (58) run to tackle Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner in the first half last Sunday in New Orleans. - photo by Pat Semansky
Tampa Bay (9-4) at Atlanta (8-5)
1 p.m., FOX

Opening line: Falcons by 3.

Record vs. spread: Tampa Bay 7-6; Atlanta 8-5.

Series record: Buccaneers lead 18-12.

Last meeting: Buccaneers 24, Falcons 9, Sept. 14, 2008.

Last week: Buccaneers lost to Carolina 38-23; Falcons lost to New Orleans 29-25.

Buccaneers offense: Overall (12), Rush (13) Pass (12)

Buccaneers defense: Overall (9), Rush (18), Pass (4)

Falcons offense: Overall (5), Rush (2), Pass (13)

Falcons defense: Overall (22), Rush (22), Pass (23)

Streaks, stats and notes: Tampa Bay has outscored Atlanta 92-19 in winning three straight over its NFC South rival. ... Something has to give: Neither the Bucs nor the Falcons have lost back-to-back games this season. ... Falcons WR Roddy White leads the NFL in yards receiving with 1,249. ... NFC South teams are 24-2 at home this season. The Falcons have one of those losses, a 24-20 setback to Denver. ... RB Michael Turner is second in the league in yards rushing (1,269) and has tied the franchise record by running for 14 TDs. ... The Falcons are trying to clinch their first winning season since 2004, when they went 11-5 and reached the NFC championship game. They have never had back-to-back winning records in their 43-season history. ... Atlanta is hoping for the return of LT Sam Baker to bolster the offensive line. The rookie has missed the last seven games recovering from back surgery.
... The Falcons will be facing QB Jeff Garcia for the first time this season. Brian Griese started for the Bucs in their September win over Atlanta. ... Falcons rookie QB Matt Ryan will be looking to make up for his worst game of season. He was just 13-for-33 for 158 yards with two interceptions in the first meeting against Bucs.

ATLANTA — The Falcons have one of the best rushing games in the NFL. They sure liked what they saw when they tuned in to “Monday Night Football.”

There was Carolina, which had one running back pounding away on the inside, while another got loose to the outside with his speed.

Sound familiar? The Falcons have their own version of Thunder (Michael Turner) and Lightning (Jerious Norwood), and they’re getting ready to face the same team that couldn’t stop the Panthers’ duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were shredded for 299 yards on the ground in a prime-time, 38-23 loss to Carolina — the second-most in franchise history. Now, they’ve got to face the Falcons, who have the league’s second-leading rusher in Turner and a speedy understudy in Norwood.

“That gives you a lot of hope when somebody goes out there and rushes for nearly 300 yards on a team,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said. “Especially with our running game. We’ve had a lot of success this year.”

Turner already has rushed for a career-best 1,269 yards and tied the team record with 14 touchdowns. Norwood doesn’t get nearly as many carries, but he’s still managed to run for 430 yards and catch 31 passes.

Can they do to the Bucs what the Panthers did?

“Physically, they kind of beat those guys up,” White said. “They ran the ball right at ‘em. I guess that’s the thing to do against a defense that can run like that. Everybody on the Tampa defense runs well, so you’ve got to run the ball right at ‘em.”

Of course, trends rarely hold up for long in the NFL (unless you’re the Detroit Lions). The Bucs had been one of the league’s toughest teams to run against, surrendering only one rushing TD through their first 12 games. After giving up four to Carolina, they’ll certainly be out to prove that was just a bad day and not a symptom of a defense in decline.

“We were humbled,” Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks said. “It happens to the best of us.”

He thought back to a similar scenario in 2002, when visiting Pittsburgh beat up the Bucs in a late-season game. Tampa Bay bounced back the following week with a shutout and went on to claim its first Super Bowl championship.

“The most important thing is that we bury it and move on and not let it drag on,” Brooks said.

Rather than worrying about the state of their defense, the Bucs (9-4) should probably be more concerned about where they’ll be playing Sunday. Tampa Bay is on the road in the NFC South, a division where the four teams have put up a collective home record of 24-2.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Falcons cornerback Erik Coleman said. “It’s just a credit to the fans. When we play at home, the fans come out to support us. They’re the loudest fans in the whole country. I think we have a lot of team spirit down here, down South. It’s great to see.”

With just three weeks left in the regular season, this game has huge playoff implications. Tampa Bay can clinch at least a wild-card spot with a win over the Falcons and a loss by either Dallas or Philadelphia. Atlanta (8-5) is just a win away from pulling even with the Bucs.

It’s been quite a turnaround for the Falcons, who went 4-12 in 2007 while dealing with the loss of star quarterback Michael Vick before training camp even started and the defection of first-year coach Bobby Petrino at this exact point of the season — three weeks left.

“It definitely feels a lot better around here than it did last year,” defensive end John Abraham said. “We were kind of planning for the offseason last year at this time. This year, everybody is planning on moving on to the playoffs.”

The Falcons would have been in a lot better shape if not for a 29-25 loss at New Orleans, just their second defeat in the last six weeks. Still, they’ll likely claim a spot in the postseason by winning out, which is certainly not out of reach with two home games remaining, sandwiched around a trip to Minnesota.

One more victory will ensure their first winning season since 2004, when the Falcons made it all the way to the NFC championship game before losing in frigid Philadelphia. That seems like a lifetime ago in these parts, a year when Vick appeared ready to lead a largely downtrodden franchise into an unprecedented era of success.

“Everyone is excited about the chance to make the playoffs,” said Turner, who played in the AFC title game a year ago with San Diego.

“That’s something some of these guys have never done. It’s a whole different feeling, a whole different ballgame.”

The Bucs won their first meeting against the Falcons, though it’s hard to put much stock in that 24-9 victory in Week 2. For one, it’s hard to imagine Atlanta’s rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, having another 13-of-33, two-interception day — his worst showing as a pro.

Ryan has matured into one of the league’s most effective quarterbacks and is coming off a career-best performance in New Orleans, where he completed 24-of-33 for 315 yards.

Tampa Bay looks a lot different, too. Jeff Garcia is back at quarterback — Brian Griese played in the first game against the Falcons — and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams took over at running back in place of Earnest Graham, out with a season-ending injury.

Beyond the evolving guys on the field, the Bucs’ remaining schedule might be their biggest strength. After today’s game, they close with home game against San Diego and Oakland, a combined 8-18.

“We can’t afford to look in the rearview mirror,” Garcia said. “It’s about moving forward.”

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