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Five things to watch when Falcons host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in crucial NFC South clash

Could this be a game that alters the division's postseason standings? 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When we look back at this Week 14 game at the end of the season, perhaps we'll be able to say this was the game for all the marbles. The Falcons are in sole possession of first-place standing in the NFC South. Right now. Tampa Bay has the opportunity to ruin that standing coming into Mercedes-Benz Stadium this Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET kick.

There's a lot to know about this matchup, the second between the divisional foes. So, let's get into it.


1. Worrisome injuries

The Falcons official injury report Friday was filled with key names, the lengthiest injury list for the Falcons this season.

Most notably, the Falcons will be without inside linebacker Nate Landman, defensive lineman David Onyemata and offensive lineman Kaleb McGary. Listed as questionable for Sunday's game was cornerback A.J. Terrell and Jeff Okudah, defensive back Mike Hughes, receiver Mack Hollins and center Drew Dalman.

In a couple sections, we will discuss the impact of these potential absences. Make no mistake about it, though: The Bucs are going through it in their own way, too. LB Devin White has been ruled out with a foot injury while DT Vita Vea has a toe injury that kept him out of practice all week and is questionable for Sunday's game.

Time will tell the impact these injuries have on the game itself.

2. Desmond Ridder redemption arc?

The Falcons quarterback took a lot of heat for his performance the last time the Falcons faced the Bucs. In that game, Ridder had three turnovers inside the opposing 20-yard line. Two of those three turnovers came on the 1-yard line, no less. In the Week 7 matchup, the Falcons were 1-for-5 in the red zone, 1-for-5 with goal to go.

There's obvious room for improvement, and Ridder's performance Sunday could bring in a certain sense of redemption for the quarterback after coming back to the previously lost starting job following the Falcons bye week.

With all offensive weapons likely available to him this time around -- Bijan Robinson didn't play much in the Week 7 game because of an illness -- it'll be interesting to see what improvements Ridder has made from one matchup to the next, with so much that has happened in between.

Atlanta Falcons running back Tyler Allgeier #25 and running back Bijan Robinson #7, wearing cleats with a design, during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, December 7, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

3. Stopping Mike Evans

If there's any one Tampa Bay player who has been a thorn in the Falcons' side recently, it's Mike Evans.

The last time these two teams faced each other in Week 7, Evans was the leading receiver with six catches on eight targets for 82 receiving yards. One of those catches was a 40-yard explosive touchdown catch. This season, Evans has surpassed the 100-yard receiving mark three times. He's coming off that type of performance, accumulating seven catches for 167 yards against the Panthers last week.

Evans will be a continual test for the Falcons this weekend, especially with Terrell working through concussion protocol. The Falcons will have to pull someone else towards Evans if he can't go. Speaking of which...

4. Testing depth

More than any other time this season, the Falcons depth (of which coaches have spoken at length about) will be tested. For the most part, the only major injuries the Falcons have had to account for are the losses of Troy Andersen and Grady Jarrett. In their absence others have stepped up, like Landman and Kentavius Street. However, with those Landman and David Onyemata ruled out for Sunday's game, the Falcons have to dip into another layer.

Andre Smith Jr. is the next man up to replace Landman. The Falcons could also deploy Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone a bit more in certain packages, too, though not on the inside and in obvious pass-rushing situations. The expectation could also be that the Falcons play more reps with a three-safety look. With Onyemata out, the Falcons could move Calais Campbell inside to help maintain the middle while keeping Ebiketie out on the edge more than normal.

In the secondary, the status of Terrell and Okudah is questionable, so, depending on how things progress, the Falcons could see extended playing time for Clark Phillips III or Tre Flowers.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Falcons could be without two starting offensive linemen, which would be the most absences out of that core five-man group the Falcons have had in two seasons. Storm Norton will slot in for McGary at right tackle, and if Dalman can't go, Ryan Neuzil will be the Falcons center. How the new player on the offensive line change the cohesion of the group -- if at all -- will be something to monitor Sunday.

5. Vying for the crown

As mentioned in the lede, this game is an important one for divisional standings. As explained in this week's Nerdy Birds installment: The New York Times playoff simulator has the Falcons with a 64% chance to make the postseason entering Week 14. A win over the Buccaneers would lift those odds to 85%. This game matters, big time.

The Falcons know it.

"We have our work cut out for us," head coach Arthur Smith said, "but we're excited to be in this kind of game. We're anticipating another high-energy crowd on Sunday."

The last time the Falcons hosted a divisional opponent was two weeks ago when the Saints came to town. After the game, Smith said there were moments inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium that day that felt as close to a playoff game as he has felt since taking over as the head coach in Atlanta. To feel that again is the hope he has for this Sunday's game, which absolutely will have postseason implications.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, presented by Gatorade's Fast Twitch.

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