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.
Victories have been frequent at the Georgia Dome since the team hired Mike Smith(notes) and drafted quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) 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(notes) 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(notes) 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.
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(notes) 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.