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Week 9 NFL Picks: An NFC South Showdown

Atlanta looks to maintain its lead atop the NFC South.

Each week Zac Hirschbeck will look at the betting odds for each NFL game and then share his pick for each matchup. While hopefully it goes without saying, please don’t hold him accountable if you gamble away your retirement savings or child’s college fund based on his picks.

After going 6-6-1 in his Week 8 Picks, Zac’s season-long record stands at 60-55-5 heading into Week 9.

Here are his thoughts on tonight’s game, which sees the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4) host the Atlanta Falcons (5-3).

Atlanta Falcons (-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Since the Buccaneers beat the Falcons in Atlanta in Week 1, the two NFC South rivals have gone in separate directions.

The Falcons, on the strength of their offense, have won five of their subsequent seven games. With better play from his supporting cast and an improved relationship with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is having the best season of his nine-year career. Through eight games, Ryan’s passer rating of 115.8 ranks second in the NFL behind Tom Brady (133.9), and the former No. 3 overall pick certainly belongs in the MVP discussion. While Atlanta’s defense ranks 29th in points allowed per game (28.9) and 25th in yards surrendered per game (379.3), the much-maligned Falcons pass rush has improved in 2016. Led by 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley (third in the NFL with 7.5 sacks), the Falcons are currently tied for 11th in the league with 18 quarterback takedowns.

The Buccaneers have been inconsistent in 2016, and that certainly stems from the play of their starting quarterback. Although Jameis Winston has accounted for 15 total touchdowns through seven games, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick has also turned the ball over 11 times (nine interceptions and two lost fumbles). This past week, after the Buccaneers clawed back to .500 with consecutive wins over Carolina and San Francisco, Winston failed to exploit a favorable matchup against one of the NFL’s worst defenses. Despite not turning the ball over, Winston threw for only 180 yards through the air against an Oakland defense that entered Week 8 ranked dead last in yards allowed per game. In Winston’s defense, his teammates didn’t do too much to help their quarterback. Tampa’s defense allowed Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to pass for a club-record 513 yards and four touchdowns last week, and the entire team failed to take advantage of Oakland committing an absurdly high number (23) of penalties.

Heading into Week 9, the Falcons are the better football team. Although Atlanta’s defense has struggled to slow down opposing offenses, Ryan and the Falcons offense should be able to dictate the game against a Bucs defense that was historically poor against Oakland in Week 8. While Winston has managed three consecutive victories over the Falcons to begin his young career, I think Atlanta further solidifies its place atop the NFC South with a comfortable victory at Raymond James Stadium.

Pick: Atlanta (-4)