Falcons at Buccaneers: 5 what ifs

As the 9-2 Falcons prepare to meet the 7-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game with serious NFC South title ramifications, what if ...

1. Tampa Bay gets real stingy in the second half. The Bucs gave up 17 points in the first half to Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens last week. They held the Ravens scoreless in the second half and became the NFL's stingiest second-half team with just 72 points yielded in the third and fourth quarters.

In five of 11 games, Tampa Bay's defense has held the opponent scoreless in the second half.

In the Nov. 7 game, the Falcons scored 10 points on the Bucs in the third quarter to take a 27-14 lead, but did not score on the Bucs in the fourth quarter.

Over their past three games, the Bucs have allowed just six second-half points.

However, the Bucs' secondary could be a bit shaky. Rookie Corey Grimm suffered a season-ending ankle injury and was placed on injured reserve. His replacement, Sabby Piscitelli, played so poorly in relief that he was released.

Corey Lynch, a former special teams player, is the likely starter.

"He's going to be a good safety coming in for them," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of Lynch. "I saw him in the preseason. He started the fourth preseason game and had a 91-yard interception return."

2. The bad Josh Freeman shows up. Tampa's quarterback is coming off one of his worst efforts since becoming a starter last season.

Freeman completed 45.9 percent (17 of 37) of his passes last week against Baltimore. It was his third-lowest completion percentage in 20 starts.

Freeman, who has won nine of his past 14 starts, completed 11 of 22 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns in the Falcons' 27-21 victory earlier this season. He also had two interceptions.

However, the Bucs did not commit a turnover in their loss to the Ravens. In the previous three games in which the Bucs had no turnovers, they were 3-0.

In his career, when Freeman has an 80-plus rating, the Bucs are 9-1.

If it comes down to a fourth-quarter shootout, both teams are in good shape.

Freeman (97.7) and Ryan (96.4) rank 1-2 among NFC quarterbacks in fourth-quarter passer rating. In the fourth quarter, Freeman has completed 60 of 93 (64.5) passes.

Ryan has completed 67 of 99 (67.7) passes.

3. Ryan wins his matchup with Ronde Barber. Ryan is always cognizant of where Tampa Bay cornerback is on the field. Barber is the only player in NFL history with more than 25 sacks and more than 40 interceptions.

The two have had a rivalry since Barber baited Ryan into an interception in the second game of his career in 2008.

“I wish this was the second game of his career," Barber said. "The guy is so efficient with the football. I remember making a comment when I first saw him that this was going to be one of the elite guys in the league."

In his career, Ryan has led the Falcons on 12 fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives. Ryan completed 24 of 28 passes, including 14 of 15 in the second half, for a career-high 85.7 completion percentage last week against the Green Bay Packers.

He was named the NFC player of the month last week.

"He’s great with understanding where he wants to put the football," Barber said. "It doesn’t hurt that he has some great targets like Tony [Gonzalez], and Roddy [White] and [Michael Jenkins], but his maturation process is so accelerated."

Look for the Bucs and Barber to try to force Ryan to throw deep.

"He’s a great underneath thrower and he’s tough to deal with," Barber said.

4. The Falcons coverage units continue to play well. Atlanta's coverage teams have been solid over the past three games.

However, they get to face a nemesis in returner Michael Spurlock, who busted a 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the last meeting.

Spurlock has two career kickoff returns for touchdowns, and both have come against the Falcons.

After the first meeting, the Falcons added two defensive starters –- defensive end Kroy Biermann and linebacker Stephen Nicholas -- to the coverage unit.

The additions have stabilized the unit.

Eric Weems is the leading special-teams tackler with 10 and Biermann has picked up five tackles in three games.

5. The Falcons defense bundles up Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount. The Bucs have been relying more on Blount, their rookie running back.

In the three games in which he's had 15 rushing attempts or more, he's rushed for 293 yards, or 97.7 per game, and three touchdowns. The Bucs are 3-0 in those games.

In the earlier meeting with the Falcons, Blount had 13 carries for 46 yards (3.5) and was stopped at the goal line by safety Thomas DeCoud with 2:44 left in the game.

The Falcons have stopped the run all season. They give up 93.7 yards per game, which ranks eighth in the league.

They have gone nine straight games without allowing a back to rush for more than 100 yards. They have held seven teams under 100 yards.

Only Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall (120 yards) and Arizona's Tim Hightower (115) have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Falcons.