The way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers see it, they still have a lot to play for in a year in which they will miss the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
Facing NFC South rivals Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans the next three games provides the last-place Bucs (4-9) an opportunity to impact the division race, as well as the postseason outlook for the Falcons, Panthers and Saints.
That prospect is enough to keep a smile on the face of Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is clinging to hope that a biceps injury won’t sideline him from a stretch run that begins Monday night against defending NFC champion Atlanta (8-5)
The Bucs play at Carolina (9-4) on Christmas Eve and finish at home against New Orleans (9-4) on New Year’s Eve.
“It is the season of giving. But for us, it’s the season of spoiling. We’ve got an opportunity to do that, and I’m just praying I can be a part of that,” McCoy said.
“You don’t want to leave with a bad taste in your mouth in the offseason. What better way to leave on a high note than to get three division wins?” the five-time Pro Bowl selection added. “We don’t want to give those guys the upper hand going into next season.”
The prime-time matchup will be the second between the teams in four games. The Falcons won the meeting 34-20 in Atlanta, with Julio Jones catching a season-best 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
After facing the Bucs, the Falcons travel to New Orleans next week before returning home to play the Panthers in the regular-season finale.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said it was predictable that the division race wouldn’t be decided until late December.
If there’s a surprise, it’s that the Bucs are already eliminated from playoff contention after going 9-7 a year ago.
“For us, we knew it was going to come down to the end. I think all four teams are capable of being the one right down there at the end,” Quinn said.
Like McCoy, Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter expects the Bucs to embrace the challenge to finish strong.
“The league has made a conscious effort here the last two years to have the division games mean something at the end, and I think they’ve succeeded in what they were trying to do,” Koetter said.
“Do you like it? It’s the same. It’s really no different,” the coach added. “It’s weird playing somebody three weeks apart, but it’s happening league-wide, and it’s just something we have to adjust to and be ready.”
Some things to know about Falcons-Buccaneers:
RING OF HONOR
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who led the franchise to its only Super Bowl title 15 years ago, will be inducted into the Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony at Raymond James Stadium. Gruden coached the Bucs from 2002 to 2008 and has spent the past nine seasons as ESPN’s game analyst on “Monday Night Football.”
Jones is the only receiver in NFL history with three 250-plus yard games in his career. No one else has more than one. He’s had plenty of big days against the Bucs. In 11 career meetings, the Falcons star has 1,359 receiving yards — an average of 123.5 per game — and 10 TDs. He needs four catches to reach 574 for his career and move ahead of Terance Mathis for second place on the franchise list. Roddy White is first with 808.
“Obviously what we did to try to stop Julio last game didn’t work too well,” Koetter said, adding that containing Jones won’t necessarily guarantee shutting down the Falcons’ offense led by Matt Ryan, who’s thrown for 995 yards, seven TDs and zero interceptions in his past three games against Tampa Bay.
“He is one of the best receivers in the league,” Koetter said. “You always have to honor him, but they’ve got other guys.”
Atlanta RB Tevin Coleman, with seven TDs and an average of 5.2 yards on 160 touches, went in the concussion protocol after last week’s 20-17 victory over the Saints and won’t play. That means Devonta Freeman will get the bulk of the snaps, with Terron Ward filling in behind him. Freeman has had 100-plus yards from scrimmage the last two times he faced the Bucs.
McCoy was injured during Tampa Bay’s 24-21 loss to Detroit, leaving in the first half and not returning. He’s had biceps injuries to end seasons prematurely twice during his career, but said he’s going to do everything possible to try to be ready to play Monday night.
“It’s viable. ... He’s had experience with bicep injuries in the past,” Koetter said. “They’ve told him that this is something that doesn’t need to be surgically repaired at this time, and that (he’s) not going to make it worse by playing, but it’s a matter of can he play at the level that he’s used to playing at?”