published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Falcons focused entirely on Bucs

ATLANTA -- Linebacker Curtis Lofton is adamant that the Atlanta Falcons are focused on beating Tampa Bay today, not looking ahead to the playoffs next week.

The Buccaneers have lost nine straight games and have been outscored by an average of 19.3 points in their past seven games, but Lofton considers Tampa Bay a legitimate threat to sweep Atlanta for the first time 2007.

After all, the Bucs ended a five-game losing streak in the series with a three-point victory in Week 3.

"It's a divisional game," said Lofton, the Falcons' defensive captain. "It's going to be physical. I mean we hate them, they hate us, and let's go get it on. We've got to get everything rolling for the playoff run."

Both teams are coming off blowout road losses, Atlanta falling 45-16 at New Orleans on Monday and Tampa Bay losing 48-16 at Carolina eight days ago.

The Falcons (9-6) locked up an NFC wild-card spot before losing to New Orleans, but now they seek to rediscover some momentum. Despite having won four of five, Atlanta hardly resembled a team still fighting for a division title.

It was a worst-case scenario.

"We've just got to get going," Falcons receiver Roddy White said. "That's our thing, man. We've just got to stay locked in and focused and get us a win. Whatever seed we are, we'll go from there on Sunday and get ready to play next week."

Atlanta has a chance to claim the No. 5 seed if it beats Tampa Bay and Detroit loses at Green Bay. The Falcons won 23-16 at Detroit in Week 7 and holds a tiebreaker over the Lions if each team finishes 10-6.

Green Bay has already won the NFC's No. 1 seed, a bye next week and home-field advantage in the playoffs. The No. 2 seed will be decided between San Francisco, which visits St. Louis, and New Orleans, which hosts Carolina. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will play for the NFC East title in the Meadowlands to decide the No. 4 seed.

Falcons coach Mike Smith, who has led Atlanta into the playoffs in three of his four seasons, refuses to overlook Tampa Bay (4-11).

"We know we have another game after that," Smith said. "We just don't know when, where and who we're playing, but we'll just make sure we're taking care of business this week. It's very important as a football team to stay on course and stay in our preparation mode."

For Tampa Bay, the bottom began falling out of its season with turnovers. The Bucs finished last season with a plus-9 turnover margin, fifth-best in the NFL, on their way to a 10-6 finish.

After turning the ball over four times last week, Tampa Bay dropped to minus-14 this season, the league's second-worst ratio. Quarterback Josh Freeman's touchdown-interception ratio has gone from 25-to-6 last season to 14-to-19 this season. He's tied for the league lead with 19 pickoffs.

Coach Raheem Morris is so frustrated with the turnovers that he benched running back LaGarrette Blount, the team's leading rusher, at Carolina after he lost a fumble on the first possession. Blount returned in the second half, but only after learning a hard lesson.

Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer and his family will decide after the season if Morris, the NFL's youngest head coach, will return for a fourth season.

All Morris can do is keep his team focused on beating the Falcons and ignoring the franchise's worst single-season skid since the 1985 Bucs opened the season 0-9.

"It will be a good way to end the season," Morris said. "It will get the guys' attention. We'll get a chance to go out there and play against a very tough team that is playoff-ready, playoff-bound. We need to get a win for this football team."

For Tampa Bay defensive end Michael Bennett, his team's 16-13 win three months ago over Atlanta seems much longer.

Bennett, who recovered a second-quarter fumble by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan that led to a Bucs score on Sept. 25, would love nothing more than to spoil Atlanta's bid for the No. 5 NFC seed.

"They're the same team," he said. "They're still making the same plays they've been making all year. They still have a good quarterback, good running back, good receivers, good offensive line. It's just whether or not we're going to show up and compete with them. Looks like the way we're practicing that everybody's focused and wants to come out and compete."

Falcons Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez isn't concerned about Tampa Bay's problems. He just wants Atlanta to regain some swagger entering the playoffs after getting embarrassed by the Saints and failing to score a touchdown in three red-zone possessions.

"We were moving the ball up and down the field," Gonzalez said. "It's just that we'd get down in the red zone and we couldn't put points on the board. That's definitely a team that you better put points on the board against, and not just field goals. You've got to put the ball in the end zone. Playoff time is crunch time, and now that we've been there and had that experience, hopefully it won't happen again."

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