Bucs treating pivotal Falcons matchup like 'playoff game'

TAMPA, Fla. -- The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons squared off, the Bucs failed to capitalize on three turnovers by Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder, they gave up two explosive plays to tight end Kyle Pitts on the final drive and kicker Younghoe Koo drilled a 51-yard field goal to win it, 16-13.

"That game kind of came down to our last series," Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said of the Week 7 matchup. "We just [have] to make sure we finish and not put ourselves in that position again."

The Bucs got down to the Falcons' 8-yard line on the drive prior, but after two incomplete passes from quarterback Baker Mayfield intended for wide receiver Chris Godwin, the drive stalled when linebacker David Onyemata sacked Mayfield for a loss of 10 yards on third down, forcing the Bucs to settle for a field goal to tie the game up instead of going up by four.

"Really frustrating," Mayfield said. "Obviously, it's been a steady growth of this offense, and that was an early game, so just watching that it seems like a different team now from where we're at. Just learning from those mistakes, guys learning the concepts completely and knowing the little details and things that truly make the difference when you're playing a competitive team like that."

Rookie right guard Cody Mauch added: "You're like, 'Why did I do that? What am I doing?' But we've all grown a lot since that game, as players. It's good to go back and see because you're still the same player. You've made some improvements, but you can kind of see what I did last time and how you can improve that."

The Falcons (6-6) sit in the driver's seat. They are 3-0 in the NFC South and are one game ahead of the Bucs (5-7) and the New Orleans Saints (5-7). A loss Sunday at Atlanta would be detrimental to the Bucs' playoff hopes, as they would be two games behind the Falcons, who would have swept them on the season, with four games remaining.

"We're treating it like a playoff game, because, really, for us, it is," Mauch said. "You've got to keep winning, especially these division games. That's just kind of the mentality for us."

The Bucs' offense is hovering around 20 points each week - a number they'd like to see higher. But there's been an uptick in explosive plays, especially between Mayfield and receiver Mike Evans, whose 10 touchdowns this season are second only to Tyreek Hill, and whose 84.3 receiving yards per game are his most since 2019.

"We're definitely a lot better on offense -- looking at it detail-wise and just [our] understanding of everybody knowing exactly what we're trying to get accomplished," Mayfield said.

The ground game has improved, as the Bucs were averaging 77.86 yards per game in Weeks 1-8 and have been at 95.4 since then. Red zone touchdowns went up from 41.2% to 52.9% as well. And running back Rachaad White now has 451 yards after the catch this season -- third-most in the league and the most among running backs. White's 88.5% reception percentage is second behind only Denver Broncos running back Samaje Perine.

"Their front and their linebackers make it extremely tough to run the ball just all over the field, but especially down there," Mayfield said of the red zone. "They're just stout up front. They know how to stop the run. They don't have to bring in extra guys into the box to do that.

"We have to be good on our targets in the run game and then, in the pass game, just find completions, getting the extra yardage and just getting up the field immediately."

On defense, the Bucs' inside linebacking corps has been so decimated by injuries. They they were forced to play safety Ryan Neal there last week when K.J. Britt left the game in the first quarter with a back injury. It's unlikely Devin White will be back this week, but the team expects SirVocea Dennis, who missed last week with an illness, to return. And coach Todd Bowles is hopeful to have longtime captain Lavonte David, who has missed the last two games with a groin injury.

In their absence, rookies Calijah Kancey and Yaya Diaby have really emerged for the defense. Diaby's five sacks lead all Bucs outside linebackers and are second most on the team, and Kancey was named NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month for November, with two sacks, seven tackles for a loss, four quarterback hits and a pass defensed in that span.

Whether it's the rookies on defense or the offense stepping up, the Bucs know what Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX) brings.

"The first game was a little hard to watch, film-wise, going back through it and seeing the improvements that we've had," Mayfield said. "They presented different issues for us that we had to learn from."