By Danny Cox

Halfway through the season, and the NFC South has three teams under .500. The defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers find themselves in the cellar at 2-5. The ever-dangerous New Orleans Saints and extremely talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 3-4. The Atlanta Falcons lead the division at 5-3.

With all the firepower and records within a few games of each other, every team is still very much alive. The NFC South could come down to conference records or, more likely, records against divisional opponents. All this makes Thursday night’s game in Tampa Bay between the Falcons and the Bucs critical to both teams.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is enjoying an MVP-calibre season, having already thrown for over 2600 yards with 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He’s taken plenty of sacks but many of those can’t be put on him. The veteran is a solid leader who’ s proved time and again he can guide the Falcons where they need to go, even in the toughest situations.

Of course Ryan has help. Wide receiver Julio Jones (859 yards, 4 TDs) draws a lot of attention from opposing defenses. And that leaves the field open for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and running back Tevin Coleman among others. A combination of various receivers and backs has more than made up for the loss of Roddy White, whose production was already in decline last season.

Find more about this week’s Thursday Night Football matchup.

Defending against all the Falcons’ skill players is a tall order for any team, including the Bucs. But don’t count them out just yet. The Bucs held off a Falcons comeback in Week 1 to win, 31-24. Matt Ryan passed for 334 yards and two touchdowns. Tevin Coleman ran for 22 yards and caught five balls for 95 yards. To be fair, the Falcons’ potent offense wasn’t stopped so much as slowed. Still, the Bucs’ offense was just a little better that day.

In the teams’ first meeting, Jameis Winston threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns. The second-year QB hasn’t kept up that torrid pace, though he continues to play well without a lot of help. The Bucs offense has been hampered by injuries and a weak running game.

The team dropped three in a row after their Week 1 win, before turning things around against the Panthers and 49ers. The Bucs, who lost again last week to the resurgent Raiders in overtime, will look to get back in the win column against the Falcons and pull within one game of the NFC South lead. A win is not out of the question.

The Bucs have been building a very good team for years, and find themselves on the brink of being a true playoff contender. That’s why they managed to shock the Falcons and Panthers already, and came very close to knocking off the Raiders. Unfortunately for them, the Falcons will be ready for them this Thursday.

Prediction: Atlanta Falcons 35 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.

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