1:00 PM ET, November 29, 2009
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
The Atlanta Falcons are struggling to stay in the playoff hunt, but three straight games at home could be what they need to get back on track.
Facing the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday would also seem to help, but while the Falcons have a stellar record at Georgia Dome over the past two seasons, the Buccaneers gave them all they could handle in the previous matchup there.
After making its first playoff appearance in four years in 2008, Atlanta seemed prime for a return to the postseason after a 4-1 start. The Falcons, however, have dropped four of five since then, including last week's 34-31 overtime road loss to the New York Giants.
Their second straight defeat pushed them one game behind the Giants, Green Bay and Philadelphia, who they face Dec. 6, in the NFC wild-card race.
"We've got to win, man," wide receiver Roddy White said. "That's the biggest thing for us right now."
Victories have been frequent at the Georgia Dome since the team hired Mike Smith and drafted quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in 2008. Atlanta (5-5) is 11-1 at home over the past two seasons with a 4-0 mark this year.
The Falcons could get another boost if leading rusher Michael Turner is ready to return from a high right ankle sprain. Turner, who had three straight 100-yard games before suffering the injury Nov. 15 against Carolina, returned to practice Wednesday but was limited.
"Hopefully we'll get a good read on him after practice and then tomorrow," Smith told the team's official Web site.
Even if Turner returns, the Falcons' homestand won't be easy. After facing the Buccaneers and Eagles (6-4), they finish up against possibly unbeaten New Orleans on Dec. 13.
That makes Sunday's matchup critical as the Buccaneers (1-9) are one of three losing teams Atlanta will face over its final six games.
The Falcons will play Tampa Bay again to wrap up the regular season Jan. 3 and visit the New York Jets on Dec. 20. Their only other home game against a losing squad comes Dec. 27 versus Buffalo.
"We can't have no setbacks. We've got to go out there and win six games," White said. "If we win six games, we'll control our own destiny."
After seeming to show signs of improvement over the previous two weeks, the Buccaneers (1-9) absorbed a 38-7 defeat to the visiting Saints last week as rookie quarterback Josh Freeman had a season-high three interceptions and a fumble in the third quarter.
New Orleans converted those miscues into 17 of its 38 unanswered points.
"It's just one of those days," Freeman said. "An off day. ... I don't see it as a problem going forward."
Ryan had a couple of off days against the Buccaneers last season with four interceptions and no touchdowns in two meetings. He completed 50 percent of his passes for an average of 182 yards.
Tampa Bay also held Turner to 42 yards on 14 carries in a 24-9 home win last season, but allowed him to rush for 142 in their meeting at the Georgia Dome.
That was enough to help the Falcons escape with a 13-10 overtime victory on Jason Elam's 34-yard field goal.
Elam, however, has struggled this season in converting just 6 of 12 attempts from 30-plus yards. His miss from 35 yards cost the Falcons a chance to win in regulation last week.
Ryan rallied the team from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter with a pair of touchdowns in the final 6:01, including an 11-yard pass to Tony Gonzalez with 28 seconds left that sent the game into overtime.
The Falcons, however, lost the coin toss and the Giants converted a 36-yard kick for the victory.
Atlanta brought in four kickers for a tryout Tuesday but decided to stick with the three-time Pro Bowler as it tries to avoid its first three-game skid since losing six in a row Oct. 18-Dec. 23, 2007.
"I've had slumps before," Elam said. "Over 17 years, you have some hiccups at various times. I've always been able to kick my way out of it. Hopefully, that's what will happen this time."
Tampa Bay has won 12 of 17 over Atlanta dating back to 1997, but the Falcons are 3-2 at home against the Buccaneers since 2004.
More from ESPN.com
Bucs OC: Ankle injury affecting QB Winston
Buccaneers rookie quarterback Jameis Winston has a sprained ankle but is expected to be "full speed" by the opener, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter revealed Monday.
Bucs-Falcons: 10 observations
After breaking down film of both teams, Scouts Inc. offers 10 things to watch in this week's Buccaneers-Falcons matchup.
1. Tampa Bay must control time of possession: The Falcons are struggling defensively; the Buccaneers would love nothing more than to move the ball with a high-percentage offense. Tampa Bay needs to keep the ball out of the hands of Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. The Bucs will be focusing on their ground game as they move the chains methodically.
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|Avg Points Allowed||28.5||22.3|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||TB|
|Rush Yds Allowed||TB|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Tampa Bay leads 9-7|
|Dec 14, 2008||TB 10, @ATL 13|
|Sep 14, 2008||TB 24, ATL 9|
|Dec 16, 2007||TB 37, ATL 3|
|Nov 18, 2007||TB 31, @ATL 7|
|Dec 10, 2006||TB 6, ATL 17|
|Sep 17, 2006||TB 3, @ATL 14|
|Dec 24, 2005||TB 27, ATL 24|
|Nov 20, 2005||TB 30, @ATL 27|
|Dec 5, 2004||TB 27, ATL 0|
|Nov 14, 2004||TB 14, @ATL 24|
|Dec 20, 2003||TB 28, ATL 30|
|Sep 21, 2003||TB 31, @ATL 10|
|Dec 8, 2002||TB 34, ATL 10|
|Oct 6, 2002||TB 20, @ATL 6|