QB Brian Griese, playing for an injured Jeff Garcia, threw for 269 yards in his first start since October
With starting QB Jeff Garcia watching from the sideline, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense struggled to score points in a critical division showdown in Atlanta, dropping a 13-10 decision to the Falcons and falling back to the field a bit in the NFC playoff hunt.
Still, the Buccaneers didn't go down without a fight, rallying from a double-digit deficit on the road to force overtime for, remarkably, the third time this season. Following a blocked punt by WR Brian Clark that S Sabby Piscitelli returned to the Atlanta 22, Matt Bryant's 38-yard field goal with 48 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 10-10.
The Bucs had the ball first to start overtime but DE John Abraham's third sack of the game forced a punt. Atlanta then drove 55 yards on 11 plays to set up Jason Elam's game-winning 34-yard field goal with 4:04 left in the sudden death period.
Though they scored 10 or fewer points for just the second time all season, the Buccaneers did move the ball fairly well through the air behind replacement QB Brian Griese, who threw for 269 yards, one touchdown and one interception. However, they faltered in the red zone at the end of regulation and also hurt themselves regularly with four sacks and a season-high 11 penalties.
Thus, the Buccaneers were unable to break the prevailing trend in the ultra-competitive NFC South, as every intradivision game this season has gone to the home team. If New Orleans defeats Carolina at the Superdome in Week 17, the division-wide home sweep will be complete.
Such a result might also set up a wild finish in the South, depending upon Carolina's fortunes against Denver later in the afternoon on Sunday and against the New York Giants in Week 16. The Bucs' loss dropped them back into a tie with Atlanta for second place in the division at 9-5 each, but Tampa Bay finishes with a pair of games at Raymond James Stadium (San Diego and Oakland), where they are undefeated this season.
The Bucs were without Garcia but the bigger problem for his replacement was the lack of a complementary running game, at least in the early going as the Bucs fell behind 10-0.. The Bucs gained 99 yards on 26 carries – starter Warrick Dunn had 40 on 12 – and had just 29 rushing yards at halftime, leaving Griese to take care of things through the air. Cadillac Williams did continue his inspirational late-season comeback with a team-high 59 yards but only had 14 carries as the Bucs were playing catch-up all afternoon.
Those 11 penalties were a serious problem for the Buccaneers on Sunday. Tampa Bay drew 11 flags for 76 yards on the afternoon, many of them false starts on offense and blocking fouls on kickoffs and punts. The result was difficult field position for the Buccaneers throughout the first half, which contributed to a 10-7 halftime lead for Atlanta despite the total yardage being exactly even (184-184) at the break.
Perhaps the most damaging penalty came in overtime. The Buccaneers won the toss but had to start at their own seven thanks to a holding flag on the return. Tampa Bay's offense mustered a short drive but Atlanta still got to start at its own 29 after the ensuing punt. The Bucs' defense, which forced three turnovers on the day, almost got a fourth on the game-winning drive when DT Ryan Sims forced a fumble by scrambling QB Matt Ryan, but the Falcons recovered to keep the drive alive.
It was actually mildly surprising that more personal fouls didn't materialize, as the two bitter foes began engaging in extra-curricular activities just a few minutes into the game. Emotions ran high throughout the afternoon; at one point, WR Antonio Bryant actually found himself nose-to-nose with Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith at one point in the fourth quarter after some pushing and shoving on the sideline.
Bryant spent the rest of the afternoon finding gaps in the Atlanta coverage to post his second straight prolific outing. After catching nine passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns at Carolina on Monday night, Bryant provided an eight-catch, 108-yard encore in Atlanta. He also scored the Bucs' only touchdown on a 20-yard grab just before halftime. Dunn added seven catches for 50 yards and WR Michael Clayton gained 41 yards on three grabs.
Tampa Bay was also without starting DT Chris Hovan, and got only a limited number of snaps from injured DT Jovan Haye. Still, the Bucs' run defense was game for much of the night, rebounding somewhat after allowing 299 yards to the Panthers on Monday night. RB Michael Turner did gain 152 yards on 32 carries but the Bucs were stout in the middle for much of the night, allowing just 45 yards by halftime. Turner was a difference-maker in overtime, however, gaining 34 yards on the final drive, including the 17-yarder that put Atlanta in field goal range.
The Bucs were tough on QB phenom Matt Ryan for the second time this season. Tampa Bay sacked Ryan four times and intercepted him twice in its 24-9 win in Week Two; on Sunday in Atlanta, the Bucs got to Ryan for just one sack but did pick him off twice and held him to a passer rating of 57.5
CB Ronde Barber had one of those two picks, as he now has four interceptions in Tampa Bay's last four games. Two other near-scoring drives were snuffed by turnovers, helping the Bucs shut out the Falcons for three quarters after they got off to a 10-0 lead. Rookie CB Aqib Talib secured his fourth interception of the year at the Bucs' one-yard line in the second quarter and S Jermaine Phillips forced a fumble by TE Doug Rader that CB Phillip Buchanon recovered in the Bucs' end zone in the fourth quarter. LB Barrett Ruud led the Bucs with 14 tackles, one for a loss, and S Tanard Jackson added seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
The Buccaneers finished the season 3-5 on the road and 3-3 in division games. They have an 8-4 intra-conference record that might still be helpful in end-of-season tiebreakers.
Not surprisingly given the Bucs' injury-depleted line, the Falcons came out running on their first drive, though it was only partially successful. Turner got eight yards on his first two carries but the Falcons tried a pitch to Norwood out of the shotgun on third-and-two and the Bucs defense was able to string it out and stop it for no gain.
A penalty on the ensuing punt pushed the Bucs back to the 12 for their first drive and jumbo DT Grady Jackson dropped former teammate Dunn on first down for a loss of one. Consecutive false start penalties before third down pushed the Bucs all the way back to their own four. The Bucs simply ran on third-and-18 and then had to punt from their own eight, which led to Atlanta's second drive starting at the Bucs' 34.
Two more Turner runs made it third-and-five at the 29 but a false start pushed the Falcons back to the original line of scrimmage. Ryan's first pass of the game was a strike down the middle of the field to WR Michael Jenkins, who got 23 yards to the Bucs' 11. After Barber broke up a pass intended for TE Justin Peelle, Ryan dropped back on third-and-nine from the 10 but good coverage forced him to scramble and he was stopped at the eight. Elam hit a 26-yard field goal to open the scoring.
Griese's first pass of the game was a completion, too, as he threaded a short pass through traffic to Bryant for a gain of seven to open the next drive. Williams' tough run up the middle resulted in the Bucs' initial first down. Three plays later, on third-and-three, LB Keith Brooking broke up a pass intended for Clayton, forcing another punt.
The Falcons quickly got back into Buccaneer territory when Ryan's next pass down the left seam was complete to WR Roddy White for a gain of 30. Turner's nine-yard run took it down to the Bucs' 33 but he lost a yard on second down to make it third-and-two. Ryan moved the sticks by throwing to Jenkins on a designed rollout for six yards and an 18-yard run by Turner put the ball at the Bucs' 10. Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the one, Turner ran off right guard for his 15th touchdown of the season and a 10-0 Atlanta lead with one minute left in the first quarter.
Another kick-return penalty pushed the Bucs back to their own 12 but Griese made two big completions to get into Atlanta territory as the first quarter expired. He threw a 21-yard fade-stop to TE Jerramy Stevens on the first play and improvised a 34-yard sidearm strike to Bryant on the second snap. The next two plays failed, however, and it was third-and-10 at the 41 before Griese was sacked back at midfield.
Pushed back to their own 10, the Falcons went backwards when RB Jerious Norwood was tripped up by Brooks in the backfield back at the seven. On third-and-13, Ryan tried to hit WR Harry Douglas over the middle but Ruud had good coverage and the pass was incomplete.
Starting again at their own 41, the Bucs gave it to Williams, who barreled straight up the gut for five yards. Williams got three more on second down but another false start made it third-and-seven. Griese had great protection on the third-down play but has pas attempt in Stevens' direction was nearly intercepted by CB Chris Houston. The resulting punt just went into the end zone for a touchback.
Ryan's first pass of the next drive was another strike down the middle to Jenkins, who got 26 yards, and the second one was a well-designed short pass to Turner that got 18 more. The Falcons were threatening to score again when Talib intercepted a deep pass intended for White, falling at the one-yard line as he made the grab.
Griese got the Bucs out of trouble with a 22-yard strike to Bryant on second down then hit Hilliard over the middle for 11 more to the 35. However, a third-down pass to Bryant came up a yard short and the Bucs had to punt again.
The Falcons got close to midfield again thanks to a 17-yard catch-and-run by Norwood. However, Barber intercepted Ryan on a scrambling third-down through, cutting in front of White at the last instance and getting the ball back for Tampa Bay at their own 33.
Passes for 14 yards to Bryant and 20 to Clayton got the Bucs down to Atlanta's 33, where they called a timeout with 33 seconds remaining in the half. After the break, Griese lofted another deep pass that Bryant seemed to catch at the three but replays showed Bryant's second foot hitting out of bounds and the catch was overturned.
Back at the 33, the Bucs got a quick six on an out to Hilliard, who got out of bounds with 23 seconds left. After yet another false start cost the Bucs five yards, Griese got another first down at the 20 with a dart to Bryant. On the very next play, Griese went to Bryant again and the red-hot receiver caught a 20-yard TD pass as he crossed the goal line between two Atlanta defenders. That pulled the Bucs to within 10-7 at halftime.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half and Williams opened the drive with a three-yard run to the 26. However, Griese was sacked by Grady Jackson on third-and-three and the Bucs had to punt.
Atlanta gained a first down at the Bucs' 48 on a nine-yard catch by White on third-and-four. Two plays later, Turner found a seam around left end and weaved 15 yard to the Bucs' 33. On second-and-four from the 27, Ryan scrambled for time and threw a lob down the right sideline to TE Doug Rader for an apparent touchdown. However, Phillips caught up to Rader and raked the ball out of his grasp just before he crossed the goal line. Buchanon covered it for the Bucs and a replay challenge confirmed that the ball was lost, nullifying the touchdown and resulting in a touchback for the Buccaneers.
Even better, two straight passes to Dunn over the middle gained a total of 25 yards. However, on first down from the Bucs' 48, Griese tried to fit a pass into coverage and the ball was intercepted by CB Domonique Foxworth at the Atlanta 38.
A reverse by Douglas picked up 11 yards to midfield but the next two plays gained a total of just one yard. On third-and-nine, a blitzing Jackson knocked the ball out of Ryan's hands for a sack, though Ryan recovered, setting up a punt. The Falcons' Jason Snelling made an outstanding arm tackle on Clifton Smith on the return to drop Smith at the Bucs' 10.
Clayton made a nice 12-yard catch in traffic to convert a third-and-eight, and Dunn's five-yard run on a draw two plays later set up another third down. The Falcons defense got pressure on Griese and covered Dunn, his outlet option, on third-and-five, resulting in a two-yard completion that brought on the punting unit. Josh Bidwell blasted a 57-yard punt and a holding call on the Falcons moved the ball back to Atlanta's eight with 1:35 left in the third quarter.
Turner gave the Falcons some breathing room right away with a 10-yard tackle-breaking run, then broke off a 22-yarder two plays later on the last play of the period. After the teams switched sides, Ryan tried to go up top to Jenkins on third-and-nine but Buchanon caught up to break up the play. Michael Koenen dropped a nice punt down at the Bucs' 11.
An outlet pass to TE John Gilmore picked up 12 quick yards for the Buccaneers and Williams burst around left end for a gain of 10 two plays later. Alex Smith couldn't quite hold on to a seam pass two plays later when he was flattened by Foxworth, setting up third-and-six. Foxworth also broke up the next pass, a deep out intended for Bryant on the left sideline. Bidwell's punt bounced out of bounds at the Atlanta 14 with 9:53 remaining.
Tampa Bay's defense forced a three-and-out and the Bucs got it back at their own 38. On third-and-six from the 42, Stevens caught a short pass and was able to dive and extend the ball past the first-down line.
That got the Bucs to their own49 with six-and-a-half minutes to play. Dunn took a draw nine yards on the next snap and Williams powered over right guard for a first down at the 39. A deep out to Hilliard left the Bucs in third-and-inches at the 30-yard line. The Bucs tried to hustle up and get off a quick snap but fumbled it; fortunately, false start flags had already been thrown so it was third-and-six at the 35. Abraham's pressure forced an incompletion and the Bucs let Matt Bryant try a 53-yard field goal. His kick came up just a little short and to the right, and Atlanta thus took over at their 43 with 3:38 to play.
The Bucs defense came up big again, and then the special teams were even bigger. After a three-and-out, Clark rushed off the right edge of the Falcons' punting line and extended his left hand in front of Koenen to block the punt. Piscitelli caught the deflection in the air at the Atlanta 40 and returned it 18 yards to the 22.
On first down, Griese fired a 10-yard pass to Clayton over the middle. Williams ran for three yards on first-and-10 from the 12 and the Falcons used their second timeout with 1:56 remaining. Abraham got to Griese again on second down, dropping him for an 11-yard sack back at the 20. The Falcons last timeout stopped the clock with 1:44 in regulation. The Bucs then ran a draw play to get back into easy field goal range only to have it backfire with a holding call that pushed it back to the 30. Another draw play was more effective, getting back those 10 yards to set up a 38-yard try by Bryant with 1:03 to play. Bryant blasted it down the middle to tie the game with 44 seconds left in regulation.
The Falcons had 38 seconds to work with when their next drive started at their 25 but no timeouts, which surely factored into their decision to play for overtime.
The Bucs won the toss to start the extra period but ran into immediate trouble when a penalty on the kickoff return pushed them back to their own seven. Fortunately, a hard-driving run by Williams picked up 12 yards of important breathing room, out to the Atlanta 24. Griese gained another first down with a nine-yard pass to Dunn, but yet another Abraham sack three plays later forced the Bucs to punt.
Atlanta got its first overtime possession at its own 39 and a Ryan scramble for nine yards helped move the chains. A deep out to White picked up 14 yards to the Bucs' 45 but Turner's run off left tackle was good for just two. Two scrambles by Ryan moved the chains again. Ryan fumbled at the end of the first one but the Falcons recovered. The second one, on an apparent busted play, got down to the 35.
Turner was stopped for no gain on the next play but Turner found a seam on second down and broke free for 17, getting well within field goal territory. An illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty cost the Falcons 10 yards but Turner got nine back on his next carry. On third-and-eight from the 16, the Falcons sent Elam out to try a 34-yarder, but the Bucs used their first timeout.
Elam's kick moments later was true and the Falcons had their 13-10 overtime win.
Game Notes: [Tampa Bay is now 18-13 all-time against Atlanta, including 7-7 on the road. The Falcons' win snapped a three-game winning streak in the series by the Buccaneers. … RB Warrick Dunn's seven catches gave him exactly 300 as a Buccaneer and moved him past Keyshawn Johnson into fourth place on the Bucs' all-time chart … One week after falling to eighth on the Buccaneers' all-time passing yardage chart, Brian Griese took that spot back from Jeff Garcia on Sunday in Atlanta. Griese's 269 yards on the day gave him 4,841, surpassing Garcia's 4,663. … TE John Gilmore played in the 100th game of his NFL career Sunday. … WR Antonio Bryant had enough catches and yards on Sunday to surpass his single-season career highs in both categories. With eight grabs for 108 yards, Bryant finished the day at 74 for 1,044 in 2008. His previous career highs were 69 catches and 1,009 yards, both with Cleveland in 2005. … Bryant became the first Buccaneer receiver other than Joey Galloway to have a 1,000-yard season since 2004, when Michal Clayton had 1,193 as a rookie. The Bucs have had a 1,000-yard receiver for eight straight seasons, dating back to Keyshawn Johnson in 2001. It was Johnson again in '02, Keenan McCardell in '03, Clayton in '04, Galloway in '05-07 and now Bryant … RB Warrick Dunn's first catch of the second half was the 500th of his NFL career. Dunn played six seasons in Atlanta between two stints with the Buccaneers. He is now just the sixth player in NFL history to amass at least 10,000 rushing yards and at least 500 receptions in his career. The first five were Marcus Allen, Tiki Barber, Marshall Faulk, Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson. … The Buccaneers have played three overtime games this season. That's their most in any campaign in 25 years. The 1983 Tampa Bay squad played four overtime contests.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Jeff Garcia, WR Dexter Jackson, RB Noah Herron, LB Matt McCoy, DT Jovan Haye, OL Jeremy Zuttah, DT Chris Hovan and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson. Garcia, Haye, Zuttah and Hovan were out due to injury.
The Falcons named the following eight players inactive: WR Laurent Robinson, CB Brent Grimes, CB Glenn Sharpe, LB Tony Gilbert, T Wayne Gandy, C Alex Stepanovich, DE Simon Fraser and designated third quarterback D.J. Shockley. Robinson was out due to injuries.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DE Gaines Adams sustained an ankle injury in the second quarter but did return to the game. S Jermaine Phillips left the game in the fourth quarter with an arm injury and did not return.
For the Falcons, CB David Irons sustained a knee injury in the third quarter and did not return.