TAMPA, Fla. — The Atlanta Falcons can make franchise history. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would like to think they can save their coach’s job.
So much for the notion that the NFC South rivals might be content with going through the motions when they end disappointing seasons Sunday.
The Falcons (8-7) have won two straight and still have a shot at finishing with consecutive winning records for the first time in franchise history.
The Bucs (3-12), also winners the past two weeks, have one more opportunity to make a case they’re headed in the right direction after losing 12 of their first 13 under rookie coach Raheem Morris.
“Our motivation is to have a winning season,” Falcons 1,000-yard receiver Roddy White said.
“You always want to be the first person to do something. That’s what our task is. It’s like a playoff game. Our owner wants to get this out of the way. We’re going to be out there playing hard. We want to make sure we get it done for him.”
The Bucs are feeling a lot better about themselves after beating Seattle and New Orleans on the road.
They rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Saints in overtime last week, although it’s anybody’s guess if one of the biggest upsets of the year enhanced the prospect of Morris returning in 2010.
The reclusive Glazer family has not commented publicly on the 33-year-old coach’s future. Nor have team officials done anything to squash speculation the owners are trying to gauge whether Bill Cowher is interested in the job.
In the meantime, the youngest coach in the league continues to go about his business.
“When you do what I do, you can’t worry about that,” Morris said. “You’ve got to go do your job.”
The Falcons entered the season with high expectations after winning 11 games and making the playoffs in their first year under Mike Smith. They faded after a 4-1 start, in part because of key injuries that contributed to a stretch of six losses in eight games.
Victories the past two weeks against the Jets and Bills ensured Atlanta would finish .500 or better in consecutive seasons for just the fifth time.
“You get what you earn in this league. To this point we’ve earned an 8-7 record ... but we feel like we’ve made some strides in a lot of areas,” Smith said.
“This is our second year. We’re talking about building a team that is going to be able to sustain the level of play for a number of years. That’s our main goal. I think we made some improvements in many areas, even though it doesn’t show on the win-loss record.”
Morris feels the same way about his young team, which has endured three quarterback changes, as well as the firing of their offensive and defensive coordinators since the start of training camp.
After a slow start, the offense is showing signs of progress, with rookie quarterback Josh Freeman going 3-5 since moving into the starting lineup. The defense allowed 29 points per game through 10 games, but has limited opponents to 17.4 per game since Morris took over play-calling responsibilities five weeks ago.
Against the Seahawks and Saints, Tampa Bay didn’t allow any points in the second half.
“We’re playing good football right now,” said Freeman, who believes the Bucs are beginning to establish an identity as a tough, physical team.
“We’re running the ball. The defense is standing up and shutting people down. This is the type of football we’re capable of playing. Our record is what it is, but we have a chance to go out and get another one on Sunday and end the season on a high note.”
The Falcons beat Tampa Bay 20-17 in Atlanta on Nov. 29, despite losing Matt Ryan with a foot injury in the opening quarter. Backup Chris Redmond threw the winning TD pass to White with 23 seconds to go.
The Falcons have taken note of what the Bucs have done down the stretch.
“I’m very impressed with the effort and the consistency they’re playing with,” Smith said.
“I think defensively, they have really stepped up their play in the last four or five weeks. And the young quarterback has definitely matured since the first time we saw him, and I thought he had a very good game when we played him here in Atlanta.”
Running back Cadillac Williams, who has overcome two career-threatening knee injuries to become Tampa Bay’s leading rusher again, is among the Bucs who feel Morris and his staff deserve to be back.
“A lot of things happened, but they’ve definitely showed the second half of the season with Josh coming in and other guys stepping up that they’ve pulled things together,” said Williams, coming off his first 100-yard rushing performance in over three years.
“If you watch a lot of teams that have one or two wins, they just don’t play hard. You still see guys out there playing hard and giving maximum effort.”