When the season started, the Atlanta Falcons were a trendy Super Bowl pick and a lot of people thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the playoffs. As it turns out, both NFC South squads are floundering. They've combined for only three wins.
But these two teams are rivals and that means Sunday's meeting will be about pride.
Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.
Yasinskas: Vaughn, I was one of those people who picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Obviously, I was way off base. I know injuries have played a big role, but what else has gone wrong for this team?
McClure: Pat, I talked to Tony Gonzalez extensively after the last game and he was adamant about this all being about the injuries. I agree with him to a certain extent because you just can't lose a receiver as dynamic as Julio Jones and expect the offense to click in the same manner. It drastically changes the way defensive coordinators attack and allows them to focus more on shutting down guys such as Gonzalez.
The other injury I thought was significant was linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is expected back this weekend after being sidelined since Week 2 because of a Lisfranc sprain. The defensive intensity hasn't been there throughout the season, and Weatherspoon would have provided a spark just from his fiery speeches alone. Not saying that he would have totally helped the Falcons avoid giving up 14 plays of 40-plus yards, but they would have been better with a healthy Weatherspoon.
Speaking of injuries, it looks as if both top running backs are out for Tampa Bay. Can Brian Leonard step in and run the ball effectively?
Yasinskas: I agree that getting Weatherspoon back should be a big boost for the Atlanta defense and the first priority whenever you play Tampa Bay is stopping the running game. Even with Doug Martin and Mike James lost to season-ending injuries, the Bucs still will be a run-first team. Leonard is going to be a big part of the offense now. He's a dependable veteran, who can do a little bit of everything. But I think the Bucs will try to use a combination of Leonard and second-year pro Bobby Rainey. The Bucs want to get Rainey a fair amount of touches because he's more of a home-run threat than Leonard.
McClure: Jackson said he was 100 percent now coming off a hamstring injury, and White continues to have his snaps monitored coming off a hamstring pull and high-ankle sprain. I thought Jackson showed signs of his old self with some tough runs against the Carolina Panthers. He then regressed against the Seattle Seahawks, but head coach Mike Smith blamed that on poor blocking. Jackson has a lot of pride and wants to show Falcons fans he was no fluke. But he can only do so much if the holes aren't there for him. He's averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry.
As for White, he had one catch for 20 yards in his return against the Seahawks. More than anything, he wants to establish a rhythm so he can be back to his old self. The Falcons just need him to be the same type of playmaker when Jones returns next year. Shouldn't the Buccaneers have a new head coach by then?
Yasinskas: It's pretty obvious that Greg Schiano is on the hot seat. He has won only one game this season and two of his past 15 dating to last year. Ownership does like the way Schiano cleaned up the culture of the locker room that was established under predecessor, Raheem Morris. Schiano, who has three more seasons remaining on his contract, might have bought himself a bit more time by benching Josh Freeman and going with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. But ownership also wants to see some wins. I don't know that there's a magic number, but my guess is Schiano needs to win more than half of his remaining games if he's going to stick around for next season.
I know Smith has had five straight winning seasons since taking over as head coach in Atlanta, but this year hasn't gone as planned. Since expectations were so high, is owner Arthur Blank's patience wearing thin?
McClure: I've watched Blank's reaction after the past two losses and he has been very supportive of Smith. He even embraced Smith like a long-lost son after a road loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Smith has been a winner since taking over in 2008 (58-31 record) and guided his team to the NFC Championship Game last season, although he's 1-4 in postseason games. I talked to general manager Thomas Dimitroff after last Sunday's game and he said Smith's going "nowhere" in reaction to speculation about maybe Jon Gruden being the team's next head coach.
Smith should get a pass on this season because of the injuries alone. But there are bound to be some staff changes in the offseason to correct some of the on-field problems plaguing the team.