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Schedule finally turns in Falcons favor
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, right, catches a pass in the end zone against the New York Giants linebacker Michael Boley (52) for a touchdown to tie the game in the fourth quarter last Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.

Tampa Bay (1-9) at Atlanta (5-5)

1 p.m., FOX

Last meeting: The Falcons beat the Buccaneers 13-10 in OT, Dec. 14, 2008

Last week: The Buccaneers lost to the Saints 38-7; the Falcons lost to the Giants 34-31 in OT

Buccaneers offense: Overall (29), rush (23), pass (27)

Buccaneers defense: Overall (27), rush (32), pass (14)

Falcons offense: Overall (14), rush (12), pass (16)

Falcons defense: Overall (28), rush (24), pass (29)

Streaks, stats and notes: Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris took over defensive play-calling for this week’s game; coordinator Jim Bates was demoted after an embarrassing home loss to Saints. ... Tampa Bay’s starting lineup last week averaged 26.8 years of age, the second youngest in the NFL behind Jacksonville. ... The Bucs have allowed 294 points, the second-highest total in the league. ... Tampa Bay TE Kellen Winslow is 58 yards shy of 3,000 receiving yards in his career. ... Atlanta has an 11-1 record at the Georgia Dome over the past two seasons and begins a stretch of three straight home games. ... The Falcons have dropped four of five and equaled their total losses from 2008. ... Atlanta has never been under .500 in Mike Smith’s two years as coach. ... Atlanta K Jason Elam has made only 6 of 12 field goals from at least 30 yards, prompting the team to bring in four kickers for tryout. Elam still has the job — for now. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan broke out of a slump by throwing for 268 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s overtime loss to the Giants. He also snapped a streak of six straight games with at least one interception.

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons sure needed this. A home game — against the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers, no less.

The Falcons (5-5) have lost four of five to put a serious crimp in their hopes of making the playoffs for the second year in a row, but they couldn’t have asked for a better opponent to get back on track.

In the first of three straight games at the Georgia Dome, Atlanta will face a team that has struggled mightily under first-year coach Raheem Morris, who dumped his offensive coordinator before the season even began and just demoted his defensive coordinator after a 31-point home loss to the New Orleans Saints.

No way the Falcons can afford to slip up today against the Bucs (1-9), especially with the next two games against wild-card contender Philadelphia and unbeaten New Orleans.

“We’ve got to get on the right track,” receiver Roddy White said. “This is a nice stretch for us. We’ve got three home games back to back to back. These last six games are going to be the deciding stretch. There’s going to be teams that rise to the occasion and teams that fade away. I hope we’re one of the teams that rises to the occasion.”

Indeed, the Falcons are still very much in the thick of things despite their rough patch. Green Bay (7-4) gained an edge in the wild-card race with its Thanksgiving victory over Detroit, with the Eagles (6-4), Giants (6-5) and Falcons battling for the second spot.

The remaining schedule is much more favorable for Atlanta, which plays four of its last six games at home, along with a return NFC South game against the Bucs in Tampa Bay.

“We don’t have room for another loss,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “Maybe one more, but that’s it.”

The Bucs long ago gave up on the playoffs, and their season of discontent took another strange turn when Morris decided to take over the defensive play-calling duties for the rest of the season, replacing veteran coordinator Jim Bates.

“Raheem made a decision. We are all living by his decision,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “There are some things that we are trying to get done on defense that I think Raheem can better coach us at.”

Tampa Bay certainly can’t sink much lower. The Bucs are last in rushing defense, have given up the second-most points and rank 27th in yards allowed at more than 378 per game.

“We are judged every day in this business,” said Morris, who fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski 10 days before the start of the season. “It’s in the results. We have to go out and we have to progress and try to get better the next couple of weeks. That’s my focus.”

The Falcons showed some promising signs on offense in last week’s overtime loss to the Giants, even though Atlanta was missing its top two running backs, starter Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood.

Matt Ryan, in particular, gave reason to hope that he’s coming out of his sophomore swoon. He threw two touchdown passes, snapped a six-game stretch with at least one interception and calmly ran the two-minute offense to send the game to OT.

“We made some plays in the fourth quarter,” Ryan said.

“We gave ourselves a chance. We had opportunities, but we didn’t take advantage of them. It’s frustrating when you lose, but we’re not discouraged.”

Turner and Norwood were both listed as questionable for this week’s game, though Norwood seemed further along in his recovery from a hip injury. Turner, the second-leading rusher in the NFL a year ago, is slowed by a high ankle sprain and could only do limited work in practice. Third-stringer Jason Snelling started against the Giants and appeared likely to handle that role for the second week in a row.

The Falcons’ defense is nearly as big a mess as Tampa Bay’s, ranking near the bottom of the league in most major categories. Atlanta also has a big concern on special teams: the baffling slump of kicker Jason Elam. The 39-year-old is only 6 of 12 on attempts from at least 30 yards and had crucial misses the last two weeks.

Four kickers came in this past week for a tryout. Even though Elam still has the job, the 17-year veteran knows he’s probably down to his last miss.

“To be honest, I thought they were going to do that a couple of weeks ago,” Elam said of the team auditioning possible replacements. “This is a results-based business. I’m not getting my part done. Your job is always on the line.”

The Bucs are basically auditioning for next season, hoping to salvage something good from their lost year. Rookie Josh Freeman has shown promise since taking over at quarterback, though he’s coming off a miserable four-turnover, three-sack performance against the Saints.

In addition to throwing three interceptions, Freeman made a rookie blunder that led to the fumble. He correctly read the New Orleans defense, changed up the blocking protection for a pass instead of a run, but forgot to actually change the play. He was sacked, coughed up the ball and the Saints recovered, leading to a touchdown that put away the game.

“We have to step back and realize we are a young team,” Freeman said.

“Right now we’re focusing on the long stretch. I mean, obviously, the first 10 games didn’t go the way we wanted to, but at the same time nobody is quitting on anybody, no one’s quitting on the team. We’re all just trying to win games because this is the stretch where teams emerge.”

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