Each week, Falcons vice president of football communications Reggie Roberts sits down with an expert and talks about the Falcons as well as what's going on in the rest of the league. This week's expert is NFL/Tampa Bay Buccaneers writer Rick Stroud from the St. Petersburg Times
Reggie Roberts: What do you think of the NFC South race and what will happen down the stretch?
Rick Stroud**: The Atlanta Falcons are clearly in the driver's seat and virtually unbeatable at the Georgia Dome under Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith. This just has the feeling of one of those special years for the Falcons, with all the last-second wins and improbable comebacks engineered by Ryan. If they take care of business against the lowly Carolina Panthers in a two-game series and handle the Saints at home, it really doesn't matter what happens on Sunday in Tampa Bay. In keeping with the history of the division, which has had no repeat winners since it began in 2002, the Saints will need help defending their crown. But New Orleans is getting healthy and poses the biggest threat to Atlanta.
RR: Are the Bucs good enough to get to 10 wins and reach the NFC playoffs?
RS: The Bucs have the youngest team in the NFL and a second-year quarterback who looks like the real deal in Josh Freeman. That said, they have not beaten a team with a winning record this season, losing to the Saints, Steelers, Falcons and Ravens. They have two more chances to get that signature win, the first one coming Sunday against Atlanta at Raymond James Stadium. Defensively, they are improving every week, with a shutout against San Francisco and having shut out five other teams in the second half this season. Remember, they were only a few inches away from beating the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. This is a team that could win 10 games if they beat Seattle and Detroit at home and either upset Atlanta or New Orleans or Washington, the last two on the road. But 10 wins may not be enough to reach the playoffs in the NFC. In fact, it could be third place in the division.
RR: The Meadowlands will be rocking Monday night in a game between the Patriots and the Jets. Who wins that game and the AFC East?
RS: I think one of these teams is going to the Super Bowl, possibly the winner of this game. The Jets have cheated the hangman several times against lesser teams. I see the Patriots getting better under the strong leadership of Tom Brady. For all their bluster, the Jets back it up on the football field and that defense is tough to deal with. But I just think Brady and Bill Belichick get it done again Monday night and in the playoffs.
RR: Thoughts on the Bears?
RS: The big difference in the Bears this season is their defense. It's back to being a Bears defense that is tough to play against. Brian Urlacher is healthy, which really helps. But Julius Peppers might have been the best free agent signing this off-season. Credit Rod Marinelli, the former Lions head coach and Bucs defensive line coach who is the mastermind of that defense. Few coaches have as much respect among players as Marinelli. If the Bears get a home game or two, with the way QB Jay Cutler is protecting the football, they will be a tough out in the playoffs.
RR: What's your take on the Falcons-Bucs matchup?
RS: Matt Ryan is a top MVP candidate because he's instilled a belief in that team that they can win in any situation. Last minute drives, throwing the ball, running the ball – what have you. That's really what the great quarterbacks do, give you a chance to win every game. That said, these teams know each other so well that it's always a close game. The Bucs defense has improved and running back LeGarrette Blount has helped that offense and the play-action passing game. The Bucs are a more desperate team and almost have to win this game to keep their playoff hopes alive. I see the Bucs getting it done on a last second field goal.