First-place Falcons go for third straight win with the playoffs in sight as they host Bucs

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ATLANTA (AP) — If the Atlanta Falcons can string together their first three-game winning streak since 2019, they'd take a huge step toward breaking an even longer drought.

The first-place Falcons (6-6) lead the NFC South despite their so-so record heading into the final month of the season.

With three of their final five games within the division, starting with a contest Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons are in prime position to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

“We haven’t stacked three wins in a row," quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “We’ve got to be able to keep our head, come back home and be able to go out and get a third win.”

The Buccaneers (5-7) are coming off just their second win in the last eight games, holding off woeful Carolina 21-18 last Sunday.

Tampa Bay still has a shot at its third straight NFC South title, but this game is essentially a must-win with Atlanta holding the tiebreaker edge in head-to-head (after a 16-13 win over the Bucs in October) and divisional record (a 3-0 mark, compared to the Bucs at 2-1).

If the Falcons win Sunday, they would for all intents and purposes hold a three-game edge over Tampa Bay with four weeks to go.

“Divisional games are already important," Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “But where we’re at, it’s extremely important for us.”

Atlanta struggled offensively in its last game, but a stout defensive performance secured an ugly 13-8 victory over the Jets.

The Falcons haven't allowed an opposing touchdown the last two weeks, showing that all the money they spent in the offseason on that side of the line has clearly paid off.

“Each and every one of these games is a playoff game for us,” linebacker Bud Dupree said.

After five straight losing seasons, the Falcons are thrilled to have a chance to play meaningful games in December.

“We're not doing victory laps,” coach Arthur Smith said. “But it's another huge game, right? That's what you want to be in."

BIG PLAY BATES

On the Falcons' revamped defense, no one is having a bigger impact than safety Jessie Bates.

He's had interceptions in each of the last two games, pushing him to five on the season. Only two players in the NFL — Dallas’ DaRon Bland with eight and Baltimore’s Geno Stone with six — have more.

Bates also leads the Falcons with 92 tackles and three forced fumbles.

PROLIFIC EVANS

Even though the Bucs no longer have Tom Brady at quarterback, Mike Evans continues to be one of the league's top receivers.

Last weekend, he joined Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history to put together a stretch of at least 10 consecutive seasons with 1,000-plus yards receiving.

Also, the 30-year-old Evans became the first player to begin a career with a streak of 10 straight years with at least 60 catches.

"I get smarter each year,” Evans said “If I’m healthy, I’m a real problem to deal with. I’ve just been blessed with health and learning how to take care of my body as I get older.”

BIJAN SHINES

The Falcons were expecting big things out of first-round pick Bijan Robinson, and the rookie running back has sure delivered.

Robinson is the second player in franchise history to compile 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his first 12 games.

He leads the Falcons with 756 yards rushing, in addition to 35 receptions for 266 yards for a total of 1,022 yards. The only other Falcons player to surpass 1,000 yards in his first 12 games was William Andrews with 1,004 in 1979.

RIDDER'S STRUGGLES

Ridder has won both starts since reclaiming the No. 1 quarterback job, but he's coming off a dismal performance against the Jets.

He completed just 12 of 27 passes for 121 yards and was sacked three times, again raising doubts about whether he's the long-term answer at quarterback.

“We’ve got to be able to push the ball down the field,” Ridder said. “We’ve got to be able to get first downs and we’ve got to be able to get points.”

WINFIELD’S IMPACT

Fourth-year safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has emerged as one of Tampa Bay’s most consistent performers on defense.

He was one of two NFL players who had a sack and an interception last week, with his second pick of the season sealing the victory.

“The game was on the line, and I knew a play had to be made,” Winfield said.

The son of former Minnesota Vikings star Antoine Winfield Sr. is the first defensive back since Brian Dawkins and Roy Williams in 2002 with three or more forced fumbles, three or more fumble recoveries, multiple interceptions and multiple sacks in a season.

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AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

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