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Buccaneers, Falcons hoping to make strong stretch runs

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Jameis Winston relishes the challenge of helping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers become relevant again, a process the Atlanta Falcons are intent on slowing down.

The NFC South rivals meet for the second time in just over a month Sunday, with both teams hoping to launch a strong stretch run that will produce a playoff berth.

“I’m excited,” Winston said. “This is the time football matters.”

“It’s a big deal. It’s almost like win or go home right now. You know you have to put it all on the line,” chimed Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman, a college teammate of Winston, Tampa Bay’s rookie quarterback and the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.

The Bucs (5-6) beat the Falcons 23-20 in overtime on Nov. 1, beginning a stretch in which Tampa Bay won three of five to climb back into playoff contention after a slow start.

The loss also initiated a four-game slide for Atlanta (6-5), which has dropped five of six after opening the season with five consecutive victories.

Tampa Bay has not made the playoffs since 2007, the last time the Bucs swept a season series from the Falcons.

Bucs coach Lovie Smith said cutting down on costly mistakes and making a strong run at a wild-card spot is the next step in the maturation of a young team.

Atlanta is seventh in the NFC playoff race and has the same record as Seattle, which holds the final wild-card position. Tampa Bay is tied for eighth, one game behind the Seahawks.

Smith thinks the Bucs have what it takes to hang in the mix.

“Guys are realists, I think, each week. As a football team you kind of know where you are, you know how you match up against the team that you are playing. I think that’s what gives you confidence,” Smith said. “We’ve played a lot of football games. We see where the teams are that we’ve played and how we match up. We know that we are a good football team, and we have as good of a chance as anybody else.”

Turnovers have been the biggest factor in the decline of the Falcons.

Tampa Bay yielded a season-high 496 yards in the first meeting between the teams. The Bucs overcame it, in part, because they intercepted Matt Ryan once and recovered three fumbles.

Concerned about the way they’ve performed during as skid that also includes losses to San Francisco, Indianapolis and Minnesota, the Falcons held a players-only meeting this week.

“What we discussed was family issues. As far as what we need to do on Sundays is be consistent, not turn the ball over, just do all the little things,” Atlanta’s Julio Jones said.

“We’re all professionals here. We know what we need to do,” the NFL’s leading receiver said. “We just had to talk about it. We’ve made some changes. We’ll go out there and see what happens on Sunday.”

Some things to know about the Bucs and Falcons:

RYAN’S STRUGGLES: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown for eight touchdowns and eight interceptions over his past five games. The Bucs remain wary of the eighth-year pro who’s won 10 of 15 career starts against Tampa Bay. Over the past three meetings between the teams, he’s completed 78 percent of his passes for 902 yards, six TDs and one interception. “We understand he’s thrown a few more interceptions than he normally has. But again … he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the game,” Bucs coach Smith said. “It’s always about the next week. We’re preparing for him like he hasn’t thrown an interception all year.”

IMPRESSIVE STRETCH: Winston was named NFL offensive rookie of the month for November, leading the Bucs to a 3-2 record while throwing for 1,179 yards, seven TDs and three interceptions. Two of the turnovers came in a victory over Dallas.

FREEMAN’S RETURN: Falcons RB Freeman is expected to return to the lineup after sitting out last week’s loss to Minnesota because of a concussion. He’s eighth in the league in rushing with 764 yards and leads the NFC with 11 touchdowns, nine rushing.

CLEAN IT UP: One of Tampa Bay’s priorities down the stretch is to cut down on costly mistakes that have hindered the team’s chances of winning. The Bucs are the most penalized team in the NFL with 109 for 894 yards. They were flagged 12 times for 95 yards during last week’s 25-12 loss at Indianapolis. “There are a few things we just can’t do,” coach Smith said.

DIVISION SWEEP: Tampa Bay went 0-6 against NFC South rivals a year ago. They’re 2-1 with wins over Atlanta and New Orleans on the road this season. A victory Sunday would give them their first series sweep of the Falcons in eight years.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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