TAMPA — The Choke. The Tweet. The rematch that will help decide the NFC South winner between two fierce rivals.
Devonta Freeman will be at the center of pregame hype involving all these issues as Atlanta prepares for Sunday’s road game against New Orleans.
But first things first. Before shifting his focus to the Saints, the Falcons running back admitted early Tuesday morning there was a more immediate priority for him.
"Massages," Freeman said with a tired look on his face.
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The rubdowns are well-deserved (and needed) after Freeman played a pivotal role Monday night in Atlanta’s 24-21 road victory over Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers (4-10) were determined not to let Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones humiliate them again following his 253-yard, two-touchdown performance in last month’s Atlanta win. Jones was held to a modest three-catch, 54-yard outing as Tampa Bay effectively kept Atlanta's overall passing game in check with what wide receiver Mohammad Sanu described as a "shell defense."
There was just one big problem with that strategy for the Bucs.
"The running backs were able to take advantage of the front," Sanu said. “They ran the ball really well."
Freeman led the way with a season-high 126 of Atlanta’s 201 rushing yards on 35 attempts. Freeman, whose last 100-yard rushing effort came in Week 3 against Detroit, also contributed in the passing game with a team-high five catches for 68 yards.
"Our running game is really important because it kind of closes the circle of toughness on our team," Falcons coach Dan Quinn told Sporting News. "Having the run game and the play-action is the secret sauce to it all so we can get into some manageable third downs where you’re not having to throw it on 3rd-and-10 or 3rd-and-12."
Freeman’s 32-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter proved the game-winning score, as a Bucs rally fell short when kicker Patrick Murray missed a 54-yard field goal as time expired.
As Sanu told Sporting News, Freeman’s TD was a prime example of "Free being Free." Freeman took a pitch from quarterback Matt Ryan and blasted through a gaping hole created by tight end Levine Toilolo and right tackle Ryan Schraeder.
Only one defender stood in the way of Freeman and the end zone. That player, Keith Tandy, was juked so badly that the safety's ankles might never be the same.
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However, it was the touchdown Freeman didn't score that was more on his mind afterward (and surely that of some fantasy football players, as well). Freeman was stripped by Bucs defensive end Robert Ayers Jr. on a goal-line carry early in the second quarter. Toilolo fell on the football in the end zone to help give the Falcons a 14-7 lead. Freeman also wouldn't have ripped off his scoring run without Schraeder falling on another one of his fumbles early in the fourth quarter.
"I feel like I haven’t played my best ball yet," Freeman said. "Thank God there's a lot of football left out there. I can go back and look at tape and always get better."
Freeman’s season is starting to unfold like that of a Falcons team that has gotten progressively better after opening with a 3-4 record. Atlanta (9-5) has now won five of its past six games and will recapture the NFC South title by beating host New Orleans and visiting Carolina in its remaining games.
"It felt good tonight," said Quinn, whose team will at least clinch a wild-card berth by beating either the Saints or Panthers. “We feel like as a team we can make a big jump. Tonight was a step in that direction.”
The Falcons, though, are well aware that such momentum can come to a crashing halt Sunday against the Saints (10-4) in a game that has added juice because of what transpired when the two squads met earlier this month. During the fourth quarter, Saints coach Sean Payton made a choking signal from the sideline at Freeman in reference to Atlanta’s epic collapse against New England in Super Bowl 51.
No such breakdown occurred this time with the Falcons completing a 20-17 win. Freeman posted a Tweet afterward that read, "AINTS lol" before deleting it.
Freeman continued with a more conservative tack when I asked him about what awaits in what will be in the Big Not-So-Easy.
"I'm excited," he said. “It’s football. This is what I love to do. God blessed me with this talent so it’s up to me to take advantage of it."
That means putting himself in the best position possible to maintain the aggressive running style that helped Freeman land a six-year, $43.1 million contract extension during the preseason. Freeman has battled knee and shoulder injuries this season while also missing two games with his second concussion of 2017.
"The only way I know how to play is physical," the 5-8, 206-pound Freeman said. “That being said, I’ve just got to do a better job taking care of my body because this is a physical sport."
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Freeman said shifting to a more finesse approach would be “like telling Steph Curry to take less jump shots.”
"It’s impossible because that’s what he does," Freeman said. “That’s why he’s Steph Curry.”
That same "dog" mentality, as Quinn describes it, is what Atlanta hopes Freeman continues to bring as the franchise tries to achieve what Curry and his Golden State Warriors have accomplished twice the past three Night net seasons.
Winning a championship while leaving the opposition sore.
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