In the wide-open NFC South, however, there's enough time left for both teams.
The Buccaneers look to do their part to clinch a playoff spot by ending the NFC South's dominance at home Sunday when they visit the Falcons, who remain hopeful they'll be able to cap their surprising season with their first postseason appearance in four years.
Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sportsbook.com have made the Falcons –3 point spread favorites for Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers. Current NFL Public Betting Information shows that 63% of more than 3,078 bets for this game have been placed on the Falcons -3.
Each team in the NFC South has a winning record and a chance to make the playoffs. Tampa Bay (9-4) is one game back of first-place Carolina, but can clinch at least a wild-card berth this week with a victory and a loss by either Dallas or Philadelphia.
Atlanta (8-5) remains one game behind Tampa Bay after missing a chance to pull into a second-place tie by falling 29-25 to division rival New Orleans last Sunday.
With his team trailing by four late in the game, first-year Falcons coach Mike Smith decided to punt, thinking Atlanta could force a three-and-out and get another chance on offense. The Saints, however, never gave back the ball.
"We lost as a team," rookie linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "It wasn't one guy's fault or one coach's fault or one group of guys or anything like that. The bottom line is (the Saints) made the plays they needed to win the game. We just have to get better."
Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was 24-for-33 for 315 yards, one touchdown and an interception that led to a New Orleans touchdown. Though admittedly disappointed, he said the team was ready to move on.
"I can't make those kind of mistakes when we're moving the ball and about to score points," said Ryan, who's started all 13 games. "Obviously we're frustrated with the outcome. But this team hasn't given up all year. ... We still have everything that we want in front of us. We're capable of getting into the playoffs."
Ryan played his worst game in a 24-9 road loss to Tampa Bay on Sept. 14. He was just 13-for-33 for a season low-tying 158 yards, no touchdowns and a season high-tying two interceptions. Atlanta, which was held to a season-low 234 total yards in that game, has been outscored 92-19 in three straight losses to Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers' defense, however, didn't live up to its lofty standards in Monday night's 38-23 loss to Carolina. After allowing one rushing touchdown and one 100-yard rusher all season, Tampa Bay gave up more than 100 yards to both Panthers running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who also ran for two TDs apiece.
Carolina totaled 299 yards on the ground for the second-highest mark ever against Tampa Bay. Atlanta owns the record with 306 rushing yards against the Bucs on Sept. 17, 2006.
"We've played very well defensively and last night, hopefully we can use that as some motivation as we finish the season," Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said Tuesday. "We missed more tackles than we had missed probably all season. Again, I'm not going to stand up here and make excuses. I'll take responsibility for it. We've got to do much better."
Linebacker Barrett Ruud called the subpar performance by the defense "embarrassing," particularly because it came in a rare appearance on Monday Night Football, and with Tampa Bay's offense having one of its best games of the season.
Jeff Garcia had his second 300-yard passing game, and Antonio Bryant had nine catches for a career-high 200 yards and two touchdowns. Though the defense couldn't make those performances stand up last week, it's eager for another opportunity.
"We're a little disappointed. We're not discouraged. Thus far we played ourselves into this position and next week is still important," end Kevin Carter said. "It gives us a chance to make something happen going towards the playoffs, so nothing's really changed."
The Tampa Bay defense could have its hands full in Atlanta. The home team has won all 10 division games in the NFC South this season, with Atlanta beating New Orleans 34-20 on Nov. 9 and Carolina 45-28 on Nov. 23 in its first two.
The Falcons are 5-1 at the Georgia Dome, where they're averaging 32.2 points, the highest home mark in franchise history and third-highest in the league. Atlanta has scored 18.6 points per game while going 3-4 on the road.
Running back Michael Turner deserves a lot of credit for the Falcons' success this year. In his first season as a regular starter after backing up LaDainian Tomlinson with San Diego for four years, Turner has tied the franchise record with 14 rushing touchdowns and ranks second in the NFL with 1,269 yards on the ground.
Turner, who was held to a season-low 42 yards on 14 carries against Tampa Bay in September, has eight TDs in his last five games.
Top Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
TAMPA BAY is 12-8 against the spread versus ATLANTA since 1992
TAMPA BAY is 13-7 straight up against ATLANTA since 1992
11 of 19 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games over the last 3 seasons
TAMPA BAY is 3-2 against the spread versus ATLANTA over the last 3 seasons
TAMPA BAY is 3-2 straight up against ATLANTA over the last 3 seasons
3 of 5 games in this series have gone UNDER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
All games played at ATLANTA since 1992
TAMPA BAY is 7-3 against the spread versus ATLANTA since 1992
TAMPA BAY is 7-3 straight up against ATLANTA since 1992
6 of 9 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games played at ATLANTA over the last 3 seasons.
ATLANTA is 1-1 against the spread versus TAMPA BAY over the last 3 seasons
ATLANTA is 1-1 straight up against TAMPA BAY over the last 3 seasons
1 of 2 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
Key Player Injuries
[DE] Gaines Adams injured last game, "?" - Hip - 12/01/08
[DT] Jovan Haye is downgraded to expected to miss - Knee - 12/01/08
[WR] Maurice Stovall IR - Hamstring - 11/12/08
[RB] Earnest Graham IR - Knee - 11/17/08
[FB] Byron Storer IR - Knee - 10/13/08
[QB] Brian Griese is out indefinitely - Elbow - 11/19/08
[LB] Geno Hayes IR - Knee - 11/19/08
[OT] Sam Baker missed last game, "?" - Back - 11/30/08
[WR] Laurent Robinson missed last game, "?" - Hamstring - 11/30/08
[RB] Thomas Brown IR - Leg - 08/30/08
[OT] Renardo Foster is out for the rest of the season. - Knee - 11/21/08
[TE] Ben Hartsock IR - Toe - 11/26/08
[CB] Von Hutchins IR - Foot - 07/28/08
Posted: 12/10/08 10:34PM ET