Atlanta Falcons brace for challenge from improved Tampa Bay Bucs

TAMPA - The high-flying Atlanta Falcons and surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers understand the success of their seasons will be determined by where they finish, so they insist they're not bothered by anything people outside their locker rooms say about what they've accomplished so far.

The Falcons (9-1) opened with eight consecutive victories and own the NFC's best record, yet coach Mike Smith and his players constantly are being reminded of past playoff failures and the harsh reality that another strong regular season won't mean much without a deep postseason run.

"We don't concern ourselves with the noise outside of our building. We try to stay focused only on the things we have control of. That's going out and trying to play the best football that we can," Smith said.

"We live in one-week cycles in the National Football League. ... Our focus is we've got mission one through 16. We take them one at a time, learn from them and move on."

Smith just as well could be speaking for the Bucs, who host the NFC South leaders Sunday with a chance to tighten the division standings.

Tampa Bay (6-4) has won four straight to climb back into playoff contention and has already surpassed its win total from all of last season.

Still, there are skeptics who question the turnabout under first-year coach Greg Schiano by pointing out they've only won one game against a team with a winning record.

"That's to be expected. That's just what people do," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It's like, well they did win four in a row, but they beat who they beat, let's see what they do against the No. 1 team in the NFL. You know what? We're not worried about that. If we do what we do, go in there and play the best Buc football we can, we have a pretty good chance."

The Falcons overcame six turnovers, including Matt Ryan's five interceptions, to come from behind to beat the Arizona Cardinals. The Bucs pulled off an improbable comeback themselves, wiping out an 11-point deficit in the final six minutes of regulation before taking down the Carolina Panthers in overtime.

Atlanta has won six of the past seven meetings between the division rivals, but most of the games have been close, low-scoring affairs.

This one could be just as tight, though a lot more points figure to be scored with the usually accurate Ryan facing the NFL's lowest-ranked pass defense and Josh Freeman leading a Bucs offense that's scored a league-high 205 points over the past six weeks.

The Falcons are averaging 27 points per game. Tampa Bay is fourth in the league at 28.7, with Freeman throwing for 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions during a stretch in which the Bucs have won five of six following a 1-3 start that included losses to the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.

Tampa Bay's lone setback since September was a 35-28 loss to New Orleans in a game that ended with a game-tying TD pass being wiped out by a penalty on the final play of the game. The Saints handed Atlanta's its lone loss 31-27 two weeks ago.

"This is a very potent offense. They're top 10 in a number of what I call critical factors for a football team," Smith said, noting the Bucs are sixth in the league in turnover ratio at plus-9 and have prospered, in part, by turning opponents' mistakes into touchdowns.

"They've been very opportunistic when they've taken the ball away," the coach added. "Really, when you start looking at wins and losses, turnover ratio is one of the most important statistics. It's really about points and possessing the football."

The suddenly potent Bucs have gained more than 400 yards in four of the past five games after only topping that mark three times in 2011.

Two weeks ago, they withstood being outgained 426 to 279 by scoring on defense and special teams en route to a 10-point win over San Diego.

"You want to score points when your defense gives you an opportunity, and oddly enough I think the Bucs are one of the teams that have done that better than anybody this year," Ryan said. "It's something we've tried to do a good job of, and certainly something Tampa has done a great job of."

Ryan was intercepted five times by the Cardinals. He's eager to back on track, but said it would be a mistake to assume he'll be able to throw at will against Tampa Bay's leaky pass defense.

Tampa Bay is yielding a league-high 312.6 yards per game through the air. Atlanta is third in passing offense at 292.9 per game.

"Statistics are sometimes misleading. I think it's a good defense. It's a defense that plays with great effort. ... It's a defense you have to be prepared for," Ryan said. "You have to respect the talent they have on that side of the ball, and we will."

And the Bucs say they have to respect what the Falcons have done in compiling the best record in the NFC. With a win Sunday, they'll keep pace with the Houston Texans for the best mark in the league.

"There's a lot to speculate and think about going into a game like this, but all we

can focus on is us. They are who they are. They've proven it all year," McCoy said.

"We've just got to work on things we can fix and get better at because there were a lot of things  we kind of got away with last week," against Carolina, the third-year defensive tackle said. "This team is not going to let us get away with them."

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