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Ask the Expert: Rick Stroud

Reggie Roberts: Sunday's matchup between the Buccaneers and the Falcons is an NFC South game and those are always highly contested in a series that's tied at 19-19. Even though the Falcons have locked up the division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, head coach Mike Smith says his team will play to win the game. What kind of game are you expecting on Sunday?

Rick Stroud: I would expect a highly competitive one, at least until Falcons coach Mike Smith is satisfied with the performance of most of his starters and pulls them out of the lineup. I would anticipate it taking on the feel of maybe the second preseason game. For the Bucs, who have lost five games in a row, it's a chance to end the season with a good note regardless of whether they are playing the Falcons jayvee for most of the game or not.

RR: What's happened to the Buccaneers, who have dropped 5 straight games after winning four straight?

RS: Well, there are plenty of theories. Let's look at the games. It began with a one-point loss to the Falcons, who used a Matt Ryan fourth quarter comeback to win. In that game, the Bucs were without CB Eric Wright, who was inactive with an Achilles injury. The next week, the Bucs went to Denver, led at halftime before the wheels came off. A pick-six turned the game around in the third quarter. Peyton Manning was brilliant and Freeman rallied the Bucs to make it a one score game. Then came the biggest setback at all. Leading the Philadelphia Eagles by 11 with 3:55 remaining in the game, the Bucs defense blew the lead and the game. Rookie QB Nick Foles led two TD drives. It was the first game where Schiano felt his team simply gave the game away. Mounting injuries to the offensive line, poor secondary play and a rash of turnovers doomed the Bucs at New Orleans and last Sunday against the Rams. Freeman, who threw only eight INTs the first 13 games, was intercepted eight times in the past two games. The pass protection has broken down, the defense can't get critical stops and still allows too many big plays in the passing game.  Overall, the Bucs look like a tired football team and Freeman is pressing.  It's a bad recipe.

RR: How big a game is Sunday's game in Washington when the Cowboys and Redskins face each other with the 2012 NFC East title and a playoff berth to the winner on the line?

RS: Doesn't get any bigger than that in the nation's s Capitol unless you're talking about the Fiscal Cliff fight. All the credit in the world goes to rookie QB Robert Griffin III, who has shown great poise and leadership in turning that franchise around. The Redskins beat up the Cowboys pretty good at Jerry World on Thanksgiving Day night by exploiting their secondary and stopping the run. But the Cowboys are a hot team offensively and QB Tony Romo suddenly has a special hook-up with Dez Bryant.  In the end, I think the atmosphere benefits the Redskins and Romo throws a late pick.

RR: Mike Smith's Falcons are 33-6 at home since 2008 including a perfect 7-0 record this season at the Georgia Dome. They've outscored their last two opponents by a 65-18 margin en route to posting wins over the Giants and Lions. Do you see the Falcons improving to 8-0 at home this weekend?

RS: Wow, when you trot those numbers out there, not sure why the Bucs would show up. But seriously, the Falcons got it going on under Mike Smith. I think they are a very good football team that has learned how to win close games. The Georgia Dome is a big advantage for them with the crowd noise. More importantly, they have great players, especially on offense. Ryan has continued to improve. The key will be whether they can run away and hide on the scoreboard before Smith pulls the plug on their starters. But I like the Falcons in this game.

RR: Bucs CB Ronde Barber seemingly always plays well against the Falcons. Does Barber return for his 17th NFL season in 2013?

RS: I'm out of the prediction business when it comes to Ronde Barber. People have been saying he's played his last game for the past seven or eight years. As always, he will take a month off to let his body heal, sit down with the Bucs sometime in February, and discuss whether or not he wants to retire or continue playing. At safety, I think he could play another year or two and be impactful. Schiano has said he wants Barber back. But at what price? What role? All that has to be decided.

RR: Give us the four teams from each conference who will represent the NFL in the AFC and NFC Championship Games this year?

RS: Denver at New England in the AFC and Green Bay at Atlanta in the NFC.

RR: And finally, give us your prediction for Sunday's Bucs-Falcons game.

RS: I think, again, it all depends on how long Mike Smith plays the Falcons starters. But I still like Atlanta in this game, 24-21.

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