Rivalry Renewed in ATL

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' resurgence has lifted them into first place in the mediocre NFC South. With their division foes pushing for the top spot, though, the Bucs can't afford to be satisfied.

Following their bye week, the Buccaneers look to stay alone in first place Sunday when they visit the Atlanta Falcons, who are suddenly back in the playoff chase.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Tampa Bay -3 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday's game, the over/under has been set at 35.5 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 79% of bets for this game have been placed on Tampa Bay -3 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

After finishing last in the NFC South with a 4-12 record - the franchise's worst since 1991 - last season, Tampa Bay (5-4) surpassed its victory total from 2006 with a 17-10 win over Arizona on Nov. 4.

The Bucs own a one-game lead over Carolina and New Orleans, and with victories over the Panthers and Saints, are the only NFC South team with a perfect division record.

"We deserve to be where we're at. We've won our games,'' 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "Now is that saying our division is weaker than any other division? No.

"Our division, it's a three-team race. So it doesn't matter. You get a guaranteed spot in the playoffs by winning your division. Thankfully for the Bucs, we control our own destiny.''

While the Panthers and Saints are one game behind Tampa Bay, Brooks overlooked the last-place Falcons (3-6), who would be one game out of first with a win this week.

After losing six of seven to start the season, Atlanta defeated Carolina 20-13 on Sunday for its second straight win - a modest streak that in the weak South, has put the Falcons in the thick of the battle for the division title.

"For us to be sitting at 1-6 and still have the togetherness to go out there and have each other's back says a lot about this team,'' said Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington, who threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler with 20 seconds left for the winning score Sunday.

Atlanta swept Tampa Bay last year for the first time since the NFC South was created in 2002. The teams meet again at Raymond James Stadium on Dec. 16.

Jeff Garcia has been a major factor in Tampa Bay's bounce-back year, guiding the offense through injuries to tailbacks Carnell "Cadillac'' Williams and Michael Pittman, receiver Michael Clayton, tight end Alex Smith and left tackle Luke Petitgout.

The 37-year-old quarterback was 18-of-28 for 196 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals, and has completed nearly 65.9 percent of his passes for 1,967 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

"Given the circumstances, he has really been superb. ... He is a big reason why we have a chance,'' coach Jon Gruden said.

Garcia has 1,846 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and three INTs in eight games against the Falcons, and has thrown for 958 yards, eight TDs and just one pick in three games at the Georgia Dome.

Earnest Graham, who became the starter because of injuries to Williams and Pittman, is coming off his best game as a pro Nov. 4, running for 124 yards on 34 carries and a touchdown.

Atlanta's turnaround has been keyed by the resurgence of running back Warrick Dunn, who has rushed for 189 yards and two TDs on 53 carries in his last two games. He was held to 70 yards on 31 attempts in his previous three contests.

Dunn, who played for Tampa Bay from 1997-2001, needs 58 yards rushing to reach 10,000 for his career. The 11-year veteran ran for 179 yards on 32 carries in two games against his former team last season, and has 460 rushing yards in eight games against the Bucs.

Harrington has also bounced back after being benched earlier in the season. He was 19-of-26 for 192 yards Sunday, and his last-minute touchdown pass was his first TD throw in his last five games.

Harrington now tries to lead the Falcons to three straight wins for the first time since Oct. 16-Nov. 6, 2005.

"We've got to make it three, four and five to continue to build upon what we are doing," Crumpler said.

By: Staff Writers - Email Us

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