FLOWERY BRANCH – After most of the NFL games last week, the coaches gave their teams a little calendar reminder.
On the “Inside the NFL” show on Showtime with my guys James Brown and Cris Collingsworth, most of the coaches pointed out that December had arrived. New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, after a big comeback win over Jacksonville, was bending over exalting his squad to pick it up in December.
Falcons coach Mike Smith hasn’t delivered his December speech. I think he’s saving it for Sunday around 4:10 p.m.
“December is when the playoff picture becomes a little bit clearer,” Smith said. “It’s really what you do in December that makes a difference. Like, I’ve said many times, the difference between Team 1 and Team 32 is just a couple of inches when you really start to analyze it. Now, the guys that are going to get an opportunity to play on are going to put themselves in the race. That’s why I think the coaches and the players understand the importance . . .of the games in December.”
The Falcons (9-2) are hoping to have a December to remember, starting with their NFC South showdown with Tampa Bay (7-4) at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
“This is kind of where you make your hay,” center Todd McClure said. “This is kind of where it’s decided if you’re going to keep playing after December or if you’re going to be going home.”
The Falcons have been pointing toward December for awhile.
“One thing that we’ve talked about is that we wanted to play well enough in the beginning of the season to be relevant in December,” McClure said. “Now, we are at that point. Now, we just want to keep playing like we’ve been playing.”
McClure and right guard Harvey Dahl will go up against Tampa Bay rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 draft. He’s been coming on strong lately.
“I think he’s going to be a great player for a long time in this league,” McClure said “He’s got some nice moves. He plays really hard. That whole defense just plays with a lot of energy. It’s going to really be hard for us, going down there to their place. It’s something that I think we’re ready for.”
The Bucs have a major issue at safety. Rookie Corey Grimm suffered an ankle injury last week and is out for the season. His replacement, Sabby Piscetilli played so poorly in relief that he was released. It looks like special-teamer Corey Lynch will start in
“I think they’ll have a game plan to protect whomever they have back there,” McClure said. “This will be, I’m pretty sure, the first start for whoever it is. They’ll have something ready for us. They’ll be pretty jacked up. I read a quote from Ronde (Barber) saying that they’ll be at their best. We wouldn’t expect anything less. A game this important, they’ll be at their best and we’ll be at our best also.”
The Falcons needed a goal-line stand with 2:44 left to pull out the 27-21 victory on Nov. 7 against Tampa Bay. But if Dunta Robinson doesn’t slip and give up a 58-yard touchdown play to Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Williams and if the coverage team didn’t allow an 89-yard kickoff return, the Falcons would have routed the Bucs.
The Bucs are saying they lost by a yard.
“You can always say ‘if ‘ and ‘but,’ ” McClure said. “There have been games this year were we could have said the same thing. Football is a game of inches.”