GAMEDAY CENTRAL: Buccaneers (6-9) vs. Falcons (13-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome

By Michael Cunningham

QB corner: Matt Ryan discusses the Bucs

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and the passing game have hit their stride in the past two weeks. But he had an interception and a lost

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Julio Jones during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Julio Jones during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

fumble in the first meeting this season, a 24-23 Falcons victory.

Ryan talked about the offense and the rematch with Tampa Bay.

Q: What has to be better for you guys from the first game against Tampa Bay (a 24-23 Falcons victory on Nov. 25)?

A: Certainly one of the things, for me personally, we’ve got to protect the football better. I had two turnovers down there the last time we played. Ronde (Barber) did what he has done throughout his entire career. He’s a ballhawk and made a great play. And then I made a mental mistake in terms of our pass protection. Those are two things I’ve got to clean up in order for us to have a better chance.

Q: How have teams tried to defend you?

A: We’ve been playing different ways at different times throughout the season. I think that’s why we’ve been different each week. There have been weeks when Roddy (White) is the guy. Tony (Gonzalez) has been the guy a number of times this year. Julio (Jones) has been that guy. We’ve run the ball effectively when we needed to. I think we’ve been defended differently throughout the year, and we’ve found different ways to win. That’s probably the thing we’ve done best of anything is taking what they are giving us and doing the best we can.

Q:It seems Roddy doesn’t always get mentioned as one of the top wide receivers. Why do you think that is?

A: If I’m talking about (it), he’s mentioned. He’s incredibly consistent. He’s an unbelievable competitor. He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve ever seen. He is very, very in tune with what a defense is trying to do, and he’s great for feedback on the sidelines. I certainly think he’s one of the best in the game.

The X-factor: Backup quarterback Luke McCown

The Browns selected Luke McCown in the fourth round of the 2004 draft with the hopes that he could develop into a starting

Luke McCown when he was playing with Jacksonville. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Luke McCown when he was playing with Jacksonville. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

quarterback. It hasn’t happened for McCown in four NFL stops: He’s appeared in 22 career games with nine starts and hasn’t attempted a pass this season for the Falcons.

That probably will change in the Falcons’ regular-season finale against the Buccaneers. The Falcons have clinched the NFC’s top seed and don’t want to expose Matt Ryan to too much injury risk, so expect McCown to get some significant snaps.

McCown has played well in this situation before. He started for the Buccaneers in 2007 when they had clinched a playoff spot before the final regular-season game and was 21-of-28 for 236 yards and two touchdowns and one interception in a 32-23 loss to Carolina.

McCown had two other starts that season. When Tampa Bay starter Jeff Garcia was injured, McCown replaced him in the lineup and passed for 313 yards and two touchdowns with an interception while completing 78 percent of his pass attempts in a 27-23 Buccaneers victory. McCown also played well in the next game, passing for 266 yards on 25-of-38 passing in a 28-14 loss to Houston.

The Falcons signed McCown in August after they released Chris Redman, who was Ryan’s backup for three seasons. McCown played the past three seasons for Jacksonville, where first-year Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was on staff.

McCown started two games for Jacksonville last season and was 1-1 with 234 yards passing and four interceptions. McCown started two games as a rookie for the Browns, both losses, and totaled three touchdowns and four interceptions.

On the hot seat: Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin

By SCOTT PURKS  Tampa - Many folks in Tampa predicted Buc running back Doug Martin - the heralded rookie with the famous nickname “Muscle Hamster” - would run wild against Atlanta.  And why not? Martin had already gained 1,000 yards on the season, and Atlanta’s run defense ranked 26th in the league (130.5 yards a game) and had repeatedly been gashed for long runs. Last week against Arizona, for example, a relatively unheralded back, LaRod Stephens Howling, had runs of 40 and 52 yards and finished with 127 yards on 22 carries.  But not so on Sunday.  Time and again during the Falcons’ 24-23 victory, Martin, who carried 100 percent of Tampa’s rushing load, was turned back and often turned flat on his back. He not only failed to gain a lot of yards (50 yards on 21 carries) but his longest rush went only for 10 yards.  Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said it came down to plain old, “Intensity.”  “We knew (the Bucs) were going to run the ball because they’ve been doing it pretty well (averaging 128.9 rushing yards a game for ninth in the league),” Babineaux said. “I mean they had a thousand-1,000-yard rusher coming into this game. So we got ready for it. We were determined.”  It didn’t hurt that Falcon linebacker Sean Weatherspoon returned with a vengeance after missing the previous three weeks with a sore ankle.  “I felt great and my ankle felt great,” said Weatherspoon, who tied for a team-high six solo tackles. “I was kind of emotional at the beginning of the game, but once I got back out there with my guys it just felt like being out there at the beginning of the season.”  If one series of downs defined Atlanta’s run defense on Sunday, it came with 5 minutes, 1 second remaining in the second quarter with the Bucs standing first and goal at Atlanta’s 3-yard line.  What followed was a handoff to Martin, who gained two yards before getting stuffed by Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. On the following play, the Bucs threw an incompletion, which set up for a third-down rush that proved to be one of the most pivotal in the game.  Martin ran around left end and sprinted toward the left corner. Atlanta linebacker Mike Peterson ran parallel and then lit Martin up with a straight-on collision.  Martin flew back for a three-yard loss and Tampa settled for a 22-yard field goal.  “I was just doing my job,” said Peterson, a 14-year veteran. “We were just reading the keys.”  From the perspective of Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman, the Falcons’ defense kept the Bucs thinking.  “(Atlanta) loaded the box and did a lot kind of outside their tendencies,” Freeman said. “All in all when you can contain a guy like Doug, as explosive as Doug, that’s saying a lot.”  Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson thought stuffing Martin had everything to do with preparation.  “We really worked on (stopping the run) and focused on it all week in practice,” Robinson said. “We understand what kind of a defense we can be when we stop the run. We came out (on Sunday) and did a great job (on the run).

Tampa Bay's Doug Martin was held to 50 yards rushing on 21 carries in the previous meeting this season. (Associated Press)

When the Falcons played the Buccaneers in November, running back Doug Martin was on a roll, and not coincidentally, so were the Bucs.

Martin had accumulated 766 total yards and scored six touchdowns in his previous four games. Tampa Bay won all four to improve to 6-4 on the season.

Since then, though, the Bucs have lost five in a row. Martin gained only 50 yards on 21 carries in a 24-23 loss to the Falcons and has topped 100 yards once over those five games.

Martin was one of the hottest backs in the NFL, and the Buccaneers were streaking. Now both are playing out the string in the regular-season finale.

“The whole season was a roller coaster,” Martin said. “We got hot midseason, but couldn’t sustain it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the last game, and we want to put our best foot forward and do our best to win this game and end the season on a good note.”

Tampa Bay has been riddled with injuries, nowhere more so than on the offensive line. Among the linemen who went down were guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, both of whom were named to the Pro Bowl last season.

Those injuries forced the Bucs to do a lot of shuffling on the line, but Martin said the unit has performed well under the circumstances.

“Guys have stepped up and done a good job,” he said. “We are real confident in their abilities.”

Connections: The McKay ties run deep

Falcons president Rich McKay is chairman of the NFL's powerful competition committee. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/Dledbetter@ajc.com)

Falcons president Rich McKay is chairman of the NFL's powerful competition committee. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/Dledbetter@ajc.com)

Falcons president Rich McKay started as general counsel for the Buccaneers before eventually becoming the team’s general manager. He built a Super Bowl winner for Tampa Bay before joining the Falcons as general manager in 2003 and eventually moving into his current role.

McKay’s father, the late John McKay, was hired as Tampa Bay’s first coach in 1975.

Other connections include:

Falcons coach Mike Smith was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville when Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was an offensive assistant there in 2003.

Bucs wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck was a wide receiver for the 49ers in 2005 when Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was the team’s head coach.

Fleck played with Falcons running back Michael Turner at Northern Illinois in 2003.

Falcons defensive line coach Ray Hamilton held the same position with the Bucs in 1991.

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez played for Bucs senior offensive assistant Jimmy Raye when Raye was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City from 1997-2000. Raye was on the Falcons’ staff in 1980-82 and 1987-89.

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant played for the Bucs from 2005-08.

Bucs punter Michael Koenen played for the Falcons from from 2005-10.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and offensive lineman Mike Johnson won a BCS championship with Bucs safety Mark Barron at Alabama.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan played with Bucs tackle Jeremy Trueblood at Boston College.

Stat corner: Freeman appears to be  ’Average Josh’

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) gets sacked by Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56) during the first quarter of their game Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, in Tampa, Fla. AP

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) gets sacked by Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56) during the first quarter of their game Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, in Tampa, Fla. AP

Each season seems to follow the same pattern for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman.

Before the season there are predictions that Freeman’s talent will finally be realized. At some point during the season, Freeman plays well enough that more people start to believe. But then, inevitably, he reverts back to his earlier ways.

That’s the way it happened again for Freeman this season. After a mid-season streak of five games in which he posted triple-digit quarterback ratings and 16 touchdown passes against two interceptions, Freeman has regressed.

He threw four interceptions in a 41-0 loss to the Saints on Dec. 16 and again in a 28-13 loss to the Rams on Sunday. For the season, Freeman has completed just 54.9 percent of his pass attempts with 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Freeman had a solid game against the Falcons in the first meeting. He didn’t have a touchdown pass, but completed 19 of 40 pass attempts for 256 yards without an interception.

The Falcons haven’t allowed a touchdown pass in five of their past six games.

“It’s a combination of our disguise and us being tight in coverage,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “If we can confuse quarterbacks before the snap, that can have them hesitate and throw the ball in places they may not have wanted to or after they wanted to on a clean read. Those two things and working on ball skills in the off-season have definitely paid dividends.”
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24 comments Add your comment

Elvis is Alive

December 29th, 2012
6:03 pm

Enter your comments here

Elvis is Alive

December 29th, 2012
6:26 pm

Local talk shows in this area are asking if the Tampa Bay Bucs haved played to their potential? Most squak about Freeman and the play calling.The coach is well regarded as not being a quitter. The blather is the BUCS will fight till the end of the game to have a “good taste in their mouth’ and build on a victory for next year.
In my opinion, the Angry Birds should roll out 45 points in the first half and in the second half add at least two more TD’s. Yes 59 total points.
Send a message to the upcoming opponents!
Show the NFL world that we’re tough and will show no mercy!
Focus on being able to score TD’s at will and how we will beat you in all three phases of the game!
Winners never quit and Quitters never win!
Rise Up..Angry Birds…Rise Up!!!

.

icndark

December 29th, 2012
6:36 pm

I saw a quote from Aint’s owner Tom Benson, regarding the new contract for their cheating pill-popping d-bag coach. Benson said that now they can get back to work on continuing their great winning tradition….hahahahahahahah
How funny is that?

PHLATLFan

December 29th, 2012
7:06 pm

Catch all ten of us in 349 tomorrow! #11, #84, and a cute 10 year old in a cheerleader outfit. (and an Angry Bird headress)

PS We want to see D. Davis at QB, not a proven #3 in McCown. Worst case, with Davis playing, is that he’s great trade bait, though only getting a 2nd for Schaub shows we’re not too bright sometimes on Franchise QB trades.

The Reverend Baby Doctor Bedpan

December 29th, 2012
9:21 pm

Priceless

December 29th, 2012
11:04 pm

Tony Dungy was the major reason Bucs won the championship, not Rich McKay. Rich is just a good promoter spokesman and bad at draft pick talent. Also, if Matt gets injured, we have much more chance of winning games with D. Davis talent than L. McCown with no talent, so I just don’t get it when it comes to the subject of L. McCown as Falcon’s backup QB.

Samuel

December 30th, 2012
6:58 am

We’ll get to see McCown at some point in this game. I just hope he comes out and plays good. No fan wants to believe, that if Matt got hurt, he couldn’t come out and win one game.

Polk County Falcon

December 30th, 2012
6:58 am

Smitty and co. watch ALL of these guys in practice everyday, and they know who is the best man to bring in in case of an injury. D. Davis appears to have raw talent with very little game experience. L McCown has played in a few games and has some pretty decent numbers. The bottom line is if Matt Ryan goes down we can hang up our cleats and head to the house. We’ve never had a top notch back up qb and probably never will. That’s not how teams with franchise qbs work. GO ATLANTA

Nauti boy

December 30th, 2012
7:28 am

I don’t know ths guy, but I was always impressed with Redman. I always wanted him to get more snaps. I hope Ryan continues to be durable or we are SOL.

True Falcon Fan

December 30th, 2012
7:59 am

Yo Folks we need the win today, BUT – MR2 makes a cameo appearance and

Luke “Skywalker” McCown gets the “WIN” baby!!!

Go Falcons — Bucs next

Falcons 28 — Buc “O”s 23

tottenhamspur

December 30th, 2012
8:11 am

play Ryan two series to keep him in sharp. play backups as much aspossible. We win first playoff game.

True Falcon Fan

December 30th, 2012
8:30 am

Here is why the Falcons need to win todays game against Tampa Bay Bucs. Check your history, the last 16 seasons. The winners of the finale game of their seasons, that is wins vs loses are 13-3. Those teams are only playoff contenders and they went on to be Super Bowl champions. So it’s important to win the final game in my opinion based on this fact.

Go Falcons!!!!

Keith

December 30th, 2012
9:14 am

Re: True Falcon Fan

I don’t think whether you win your last game has anything to do with what you do in the playoffs. Ask the Falcons in 2010.

More important to stay healthy and fresh.

tc

December 30th, 2012
9:27 am

PCF Matt Schaub was our back up! Is he not “decent”?

True Falcon Fan

December 30th, 2012
9:42 am

@9:14 — my point is the higher percentage of “winners have won the Super Bowls” based on the past sixteen seasons. The 1998 Falcons won their finale season game with the Lions. But we know what happened in that Super Bowl year with Denver. Don’t need to discuss the 2010 team, that was ugly for sure. So you are right, at the end of the day, if they make it to the Super Bowl. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the final game of regular season. This team has earned the home field advantage thru out the playoffs this coming post season. In my opinion — I would whether this team continue winning as based on the previous 16 seasons — win/lose record —- I like those percentages! Plus I think it has some to do with maintianing the momentum also.

Go Falcons!!!!

phil

December 30th, 2012
11:39 am

It’s been a great season….

Too bad it’s about to end in the usual heartbreak.

JSS

December 30th, 2012
12:00 pm

SMDH, the Falcons finished against the Dolphins in the 1998 season…

NFC South Champs

December 30th, 2012
12:18 pm

Rise Up number 14 happens today.

Growler

December 30th, 2012
12:19 pm

Roddy White is active and starting. I think it’s great the starters are playing, but White active doesn’t make sense — unless the lingering knee injury was a mirage.

1990_Champs_GT

December 30th, 2012
12:23 pm

A loss today without a loss of a key player is a win. 14-2 sounds better than 13-3, but having all our weapons on offense up and running in two weeks is worth more.

1990_Champs_GT

December 30th, 2012
12:35 pm

Aint’s are not a concern right now. I don’t care you coaches that flash in the pan team. I don’t care that I’ll have to see Brees advertise NyQuil and the new One Direction single at some point during the games today.

Win the Super Bowl and Ryan will be selling shaving products again, models will be wearing “Rowdy Roddy” personalized Falcons jerseys and catalogs will carry the Birds on everything from coffee mugs to throw blankets.

Super Bowl win= profitability

jim

December 30th, 2012
5:24 pm

What a bunch of losers Atlanta are rolling over like a fat girl at last call, can’t even beat the take-it-in-the-Buttaneers. They will die in any play off situation as they always do. They should paint a big Scarlet Letter A welcome to Atlanta home of the last call sluts, even if you’re from Tampa and fat we can’t pick you up, but we have plenty of peaches if you like to buy one on your way home.

jo

December 30th, 2012
10:47 pm

Falcons are one and done..getting beat hy the buttaneers was embarrassing…

Ronfalconfan

December 31st, 2012
9:50 am

Why do I have the feeling of same ole same ole, one and done in the playoffs again,