ATLANTA — Linebacker Curtis Lofton is adamant that the Atlanta Falcons are focused on beating Tampa Bay, not looking ahead to the playoffs next week.
The Buccaneers have lost nine in a row 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 on Saturday.
The Falcons locked up an NFC wild-card spot before losing to New Orleans, but now they seek to regain some momentum. Despite having won four of five, Atlanta hardly resembled a team still fighting for a division title.
“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.
Falcons coach Mike Smith, who has led Atlanta into the playoffs in three of his four seasons, refuses to overlook Tampa Bay.
“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 25-6 last season to 14-19 this season. He is tied for the league lead with 19 picks.
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 whether Morris, the NFL’s youngest coach, will return for a fourth season.
For Tampa Bay defensive end Michael Bennett, his team’s 16-13 win three months ago over Atlanta seems much longer ago.
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.”