The Buccaneers can wrap up a spot in the postseason, and ruin the Falcons’ hopes of reaching the playoffs, when the teams meet at Raymond James Stadium.
The Panthers beat the New Orleans Saints 27-10 the next day, dropping the Bucs a game back in the division.
Still, Tampa Bay can clinch a spot in the postseason this weekend with a win over Atlanta and a combination of two losses among Dallas, Washington and Minnesota. It can also make the playoffs if the Cowboys or Redskins lose and the Chicago Bears win.
A victory over the Falcons would also prevent the Panthers from clinching the NFC South.
“If you have a lottery ticket, you have a chance to win the lottery, so you’re going to watch the lottery to see if you win,” coach Jon Gruden said. “Common sense tells you that we’re excited to be in the race. We also realize that we’ve got to take care of our jobs. We’ve got to do our stuff. We’ve got to find a way to win another game.”
The Buccaneers had won four of five and were coming off a 20-10 win over Carolina on Dec. 11, but were outgained 336-138 by the Patriots. Chris Simms was 21-for-34 passing for 155 yards, but had no touchdowns and was sacked seven times.
Simms injured his thumb during the second quarter, but continued to play. He said that he plans on taking the field against the Falcons.
“I’m young and I’m resilient,” said Simms, 4-4 as a starter since taking over for the injured Brian Griese. “It’s a physical sport. You expect to get hit and be ready to go the next week.”
Tampa Bay was shut out for the first time in 103 games since a 45-0 loss on Dec. 19, 1999 to Oakland. The Bucs had allowed the third-fewest points in the league coming in, but gave up its second-highest total of the season.
Carnell Williams, who entered Sunday’s game with five 100-yard performances and 924 yards rushing, gained 23 yards on 14 carries, while Tampa Bay managed just 30 yards on 18 rushes. The Bucs lost 47 yards on sacks.
“Lack of intensity didn’t have anything to do with it,” Gruden said. “The Patriots played a much more physical game than we did.”
The Buccaneers allowed the Falcons to gain 443 yards in a late November matchup, but still managed to come away with a 30-27 win. Atlanta’s Michael Vick had the second 300-yard passing game of his career, but committed a fumble with 1:07 remaining that led to the Buccaneers’ winning field goal.
“Yeah, (that) was unfortunate, but we can’t allow that to occur this time,” said defensive end Simeon Rice, who has 4 1/2 career sacks of Vick. “We’ve got to go out there and step on this team right out of the gate. If we don’t, then it’s going to be a doozy for us, it’s going to be a really hard one. The easier we can make it, the more we can dominate.”
The Falcons have lost four of six, including Sunday’s 16-3 loss to the Bears. Vick ran for just 35 yards and completed only 13 of 32 passes for 122 yards and no touchdowns. He threw two interceptions.
Vick bruised his ribs in Atlanta’s win over New Orleans the previous weekend, but wouldn’t blame his performance on the injury or on the frigid conditions in Chicago.
“I didn’t have any trouble gripping the ball. … You have the wind blowing, trying to figure out exactly where you should throw the ball,” he said. “You are not used to it, but trust me, I won’t use that as an excuse.”
The Falcons failed to score a touchdown for the second time in three games. Their wins are against teams with a combined 35-63 record, and their only victory over a team with a winning record came against Minnesota on Oct. 2.
Atlanta is one of four 8-6 teams battling for the final NFC wild-card spot. A loss, combined with either a Washington or Dallas win, would eliminate Atlanta from the postseason race.
“They know that they have to win two games,” coach Jim Mora said. “This team, like I have said, has character through and through. We have great leadership.”