Falcons plan to take bumbling Bucs seriously

FLOWERY BRANCH — In late September, all indicators pointed toward a breakthrough season for the 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They were coming off a 10-6 season and had defeated the Falcons, the defending NFC South champs, 16-13 in a physical game Sept. 25 to improve to 2-1. The Bucs won two of their next three games to improve to 4-2, before their promising season started to crumble.

The Bucs (4-11) have lost nine consecutive games, losing 28 turnovers during their slide. Overall, they have thrown 21 interceptions and have lost 15 fumbles. They have a minus-14 turnover ratio, which ranks 31st in the NFL. Only Washington has a worse turnover ratio at minus-15.

“The turnover ratio has definitely not been in their favor, and everyone knows it’s difficult to win when you lose the turnover ratio,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It’s probably the biggest indicator in terms of wins and losses.”

The main culprit has been third-year quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown 19 interceptions to go with only 14 touchdown passes. Last season, Freeman had 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Last week, a fumble on their first play of the game led coach Raheem Morris to bench running back LeGarrette Blount for most of the first half.

“When we turn the ball over as a team, we’re not very good,” Morris said bluntly.

The embattled coach felt he needed to send a message because the fumble clearly was a sign to him that the Bucs were not ready to play.

He was correct. The Bucs went on to commit three turnovers in their 48-16 loss to Carolina. The Panthers used the four turnovers to manufacture 24 points.

“Right now, for us, it’s all about getting better for next year,” Morris said. “We want to see young guys develop. We want to see guys go out there with a grasp of what we are trying to do.”

The Falcons, who have wrapped up a playoff berth, don’t know the bumbling version of the Bucs. They expect to see the team that beat them.

In September, the Falcons were called for an offside penalty on a fourth-and-1 play with 1:49 left to play in the game. That gave the Bucs a first down that allowed them to run out the clock.

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez believes his team will take the Bucs seriously Sunday.

“They beat us earlier this year, so we know what they are capable of,” Gonzalez said. “We will be ready to go, there’s no doubt about it.”

If Detroit beats Green Bay in a 1 p.m. game, the Falcons will take the field knowing they are locked into the No. 6 seed for the playoffs.

“We definitely have to go out there with that sense of urgency because we have to get something going right before the postseason, and it starts with Tampa,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.

The Falcons are licking their wounds after a 45-16 loss to New Orleans on Monday night and want to go into the playoffs with some momentum.

“We have to just come out this Sunday and have a dominant performance,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We not only want to put that game behind us mentally, but physically. We need to go out there and compete and dominate like we did against Jacksonville [in the previous game].”

Despite the Bucs’ dismal season and free fall from playoff-contender status, the Falcons expect a good effort from them Sunday.

“I’ve been in situations like this before,” center Todd McClure said. “If you’re a pro, you’re going to go out there and play no matter what the situation is. Sometimes guys respect their coach and want to give the best effort, but if you’re going to be a pro, you’ll go out there and play.”