Ira Kaufman: The Bucs are living up to the blueprint Greg Schiano envisioned right from the start – run the football, take shots downfield, stop the run, and win the turnover battle. The new offensive additions (rookie RB Doug Martin, WR Vincent Jackson) have helped resurrect Josh Freeman in an attack that is averaging 28.7 points, tied with the Saints for best in the NFC. And the Bucs are doing it with Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph on the sidelines. The secondary remains vulnerable, especially with the departure of Aqib Talib, but the defense has 20 takeaways, one more than Atlanta.RR: Falcons head coach Mike Smith is 6-2 against Tampa Bay since becoming Atlanta’s head coach in 2008. Being that these two teams are bitter NFC South rivals, what kind of game are you expecting this weekend?
IK: I expect a lot of points being scored at Raymond James Stadium. The Falcons don’t run the ball particularly well and Tampa Bay boasts the league’s stingiest rush defense. It wouldn’t surprise me to see
RR: After a very slow start, it seems like the team that’s playing some of the best football in the NFL these days are the Denver Broncos. Will the Broncos be there at the end?
IK: The Broncos are the class of a weak AFC West division and Peyton Manning has made a miraculous comeback. What really impresses me about Denver, though, is a relentless pass rush that has generated 35 sacks, tops in the league. OLB Von Miller is already drawing comparisons to Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas and John Fox is proving once again that he is one of the best coaches in the league.RR: Let’s switch back to the Buccaneers and the resurgence of QB Josh Freeman. What’s been the difference in Freeman’s performance in 2012 compared to his play in 2011?
IK: Instead of trying to win games by himself, Josh Freeman has learned to trust his receivers. Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams have outstanding ball skills and they make big plays, even when they appear to be covered tightly. New quarterbacks coach Ron Turner has worked closely with Freeman to cut down on his mistakes and he has returned to the 2010 form that stamped him as one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks. He also deserves credit for re-dedicating himself in the offseason, shedding 20 pounds and accepting a leadership role.RR: NFL experts around the country think that Matt Schaub and his Houston Texans are the best team in football. What’s your take?
IK: The Texans are very well balanced. They continue to roll, even after a season-ending injury to Brian Cushing, and they play a physical style of football that will serve them well in the postseason. That 13-6 victory in Chicago was an example of how they are built to thrive in adverse weather. Matt Schaub doesn’t get enough credit, and a healthy Andre Johnson stamps the Texans as the most complete team in the AFC.
RR: Thanksgiving Day always features three solid games. Who do you like in the Turkey Day match-ups and why – Houston at Detroit on CBS; Washington at Dallas on Fox; and New England at the New York Jets on NBC?
IK: The Lions can’t seem to get over the hump and Ndamukong Suh isn’t making big plays, so I like the Texans Thursday. The Cowboys were lucky to beat Cleveland at home, but they usually defeat the Redskins at Big D, so I’ll go with Dallas. The Jets played well in St. Louis, but Sam Bradford will never be confused with Tom Brady. With fabulous TE Rob Gronkowski sidelined, I’m going with the Jets to spring an upset.
RR: And finally, give us your take on the Green Bay Packers, who are riddled with injuries but seemingly keep finding ways to win. Why are the Packers a dangerous NFC opponent?
IK: As long as they can keep Aaron Rodgers upright, the Packers will be a championship contender. He’s great on third down, he’s great in the fourth quarter, and he’s been able to overcome the absence of Greg Jennings most of the season. Still, there are major concerns along the offensive line and the ground game often sputters. Green Bay is good, but the Packers have obvious flaws that can be exploited in the playoffs.