In a battle for first place in the division, and the conference overall, the Atlanta Falcons beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by six points, 27-21.
Or, looking at it another way, the Falcons topped the Bucs by a single yard.
The Buccaneers nearly pulled off another stunning comeback Sunday at the Georgia Dome, nearly won their team-record sixth straight road game and nearly took over sole possession in the hotly-contested NFC South. Unfortunately, all of those possible treasures were denied the NFL's youngest team when a fourth-and-one run at the Atlanta two-yard line came up short in the game's final minutes.
Rallying from deficits of 14-0 and 27-14, the Buccaneers were down by six and knocking on the Falcons' doorstep when a third-down run by rookie LeGarrette Blount left them in a fourth-and-one situation at the two. Blount got the call again on fourth down and tried to go over right guard but was stopped short of the sticks. Atlanta was able to gain one more first down and run out the clock from there.
The Bucs' first rally came courtesy of its emerging-star duo of Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. Each rookie caught a touchdown in the second quarter as the Bucs closed an initial 14-point gap to 17-14 at halftime. Second-year QB Josh Freeman hit Benn on a nifty rollout lob over an Atlanta defender early in the second quarter, then stood in against a blitz to deliver a 58-yard strike to Williams one drive later. Freeman finished the game with 11 completions in 22 attempts for 189 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran four times for 26 yards and took only one sack despite frequent blitzing by the aggressive Falcons defense.
Atlanta pushed its lead back to 13 points in the third period with a short touchdown drive following a Jonathan Babineaux interception on a deflected pass, plus Matt Bryant's second field goal of the game. Micheal Spurlock then sparked the second comeback with an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. following Bryant's field goal. After giving up 235 yards of offense in the first half, Tampa Bay's defense got into the act, allowing only 130 yards after the break and turning back two Atlanta drives that started in Buccaneer territory in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs' final drive started at their own nine after that second big defensive stop. Blount, who would finish with 46 yards on 13 carries, started the drive with a 21-yard run and Freeman kept it alive with a precise 11-yard pass to Williams on the sideline on third-and-10. The Bucs then got tricky with a fleaflicker, drawing a pass interference call on a deep pass to Benn that positioned the ball at the Atlanta 11. That's where the Falcons made their game-winning stand.
The Bucs got good returns from their special teams, particularly from WR Micheal Spurlock on kickoff returns. Spurlock gained 209 yards on four returns, highlighted by a 66-yarder in the second quarter and an 89-yarder in the third period. The first long returner set up Freeman's touchdown pass to Benn, and the second was good for seven points on its own. Spurlock's 89-yarder made him the first player in team history to score twice on kickoff returns, coupled with his 90-yarder against Atlanta on December 16, 2007 that was the first kickoff return TD in franchise history. Spurlock is also the first player in team annals to have two returns of 60 or more yards in the same game. The Bucs had no kickoff return touchdowns in their first 497 games but now have four in the last 43 outings.
The Bucs nearly got another spark on special teams when they tried a surprise onside kick after Spurlock's touchdown. K Connor Barth simply tapped the ball up the middle, then chased it himself and fell on it just after it went 10 yards…or so it seemed. The Falcons challenged the ruling and it was deemed that the ball hit Barth's leg just before it went 10 yards, which resulted in Atlanta getting possession at the Bucs' 39. Tampa Bay's defense responded impressively to that setback, forcing a three-and-out, but the resulting punt still pinned the Bucs at their own four.
The second defensive stop in Bucs territory came after CB Brent Grimes intercepted a Freeman pass on the left sideline with 11 minutes to play. Those were the game's only two turnovers, marking the first time this season that Tampa Bay has lost the giveaway/takeaway battle in a game.
Atlanta's offense was firing on all cylinders in the first half, led by a precise Matt Ryan. Ryan was particularly sharp in the first half, and he finished with 235 yards on 24-of-36 passing, tossing one touchdown and no interceptions. TE Tony Gonzalez was his favorite target, catching eight passes for 72 yards. The Falcons' offense also got an outstanding game by powerful RB Michael Turner, who finished with 107 yards on 24 carries. After the stop at the two-yard line, the Falcons needed one more first down to run out the game clock and Turner was able to get it done on three hard-nosed carries.
Atlanta's first three drives all resulted in points, with Ryan directing a 61-yard touchdown march to open the game. The Falcons had to convert a fourth-and-two in Buccaneer territory to keep the drive alive, but they did so with a quick out pass to RB Jason Snelling, and Turner eventually took it in from two yards out.
Tampa Bay's first drive found some success and got into Atlanta territory but the Bucs eventually had to punt from the 40. While it looked like a turn in Tampa Bay's favor when S Sabby Piscitelli downed the ball just inches from the goal line, the Falcons proceeded to drive 99 yards for another touchdown. Ryan converted two long third downs just before the end of the first quarter, then threw a 43-yard pump-and-go to WR Michael Jenkins on the first play of the second period. Turner finished that drive, too, bashing in from 10 yards out.
The Bucs got the play they needed to get back into the game on the ensuing kickoff, with WR Micheal Spurlock zipping straight down the left sideline for a 66-yard return to the Atlanta 32. Freeman then completed a 15-yard pass to Williams against a blitz on third-and-seven, then threw his 14-yard TD to Benn to put the Bucs on the board.
Atlanta came right back with a long drive into Buccaneer territory, aided by a 10-yard run by Snelling and a personal foul call on CB Elbert Mack, but this time the visitors stopped the march short of the end zone. LB Geno Hayes' stop of Snelling on a third-and-three swing pass held the back to no gain and led to Matt Bryant's 31-yard field goal.
The Bucs had to start the next drive at their own 10, but were able to mount a long march of their own. Freeman converted an early third-and-six with a 13-yard pass down the middle to TE Kellen Winslow. On the seventh play of the drive, the Falcons brought several extra blitzers and Freeman took advantage, hitting Williams on a quick slant and letting the receiver do the rest. Williams broke away from his cover man and outran the safety for a career-long 58-yard touchdown.
Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
The Buccaneers got the ball to start the second half but that didn't work out as the team had hoped. On third-and-five from the Bucs' 30, Atlanta produced the game's first turnover on DT Jonathan Babineaux's interception. On the play, DE Kroy Biermann broke free on Freeman and his hit forced a wobbler that went straight to Babineaux.
Turner's 19-yard run immediately put the ball at the Bucs' 11. On third-and-nine from the 10, White caught a square-in and was tackled by Talib at the one-yard line, but the Bucs challenged the spot and whether it was a first down. The call stood but the Bucs turned Turner back on his first-down carry, driving the ball back to the five. A fade to Finneran was broken up by CB E.J. Biggers, but Ryan then found TE Michael Palmer for a touchdown pass.
After a touchback, the Bucs got Blount into the game and he immediately ripped off runs of 12, six and three yards. On third-and-inches from the 41, Freeman bulled his way through the pile over left guard and got enough to move the chains. The Bucs faced another third down moments later from the 44, and Freeman's pass over the middle to rookie WR Preston Parker was thrown a little behind the receiver. The Bucs had to punt and it was fair caught at the 18.
Turner found a seam for a gain of 11 two plays into the drive, but Barber tripped up Snelling for no gain on the next snap. A toe-tapping sideline catch by Jenkins earned another first down at the 44. The Bucs blitzed on several plays in a row and Ryan eventually got off the perfect play against it, a seam pass to White for a gain of 22. Turner then barreled for 12 more to get the ball down to the 22. And offensive pass interference call on White cost the Falcons 10 yards and helped put them into a third-and-15 at the 27. The Bucs stifled a screen play to Snelling on third down, bringing on Bryant to hit a 41-yard field goal that extended Atlanta's lead to 27-14.
Spurlock answered that one immediately with his second long return of the game, this one finding paydirt and closing the gap to 27-21 just before the end of the third quarter. The unsuccessful onside kick and ensuing punt forced the Bucs back to their own four and Josh Freeman's pass out of the end zone was batted down on first down. Blount's run on second down lost three yards and was nearly a safety, but Freeman's ridiculous 43-yard lob down the sideline to Spurlock kept the drive moving. Spurlock caught the ball as it fell in over CB Brent Grimes and just missed going the distance as Grimes grabbed his legs as he fell. Grimes got his revenge two plays later when he jumped an out to Mike Williams and intercepted Freeman's pass at the Bucs' 47.
After a 13-yard rollout pass to Gonzalez, the Falcons tried Turner around the right end but he was caught for a loss of two by LB Dekoda Watson. A hard hit by Hayes knocked the ball out of White's grasp on second down and Biggers had perfect coverage on WR Harry Douglas on a deep ball and the Falcons had to punt again with 10 minutes left in the game.
After Spurlock's fair catch at the nine, Blount immediately broke free for a gain of 21 down the left sideline. Three plays later, on third-and-two from the 38, the Bucs put it in Cadillac Williams' hand and the gritty back picked up seven yards on a draw play thanks to a second-effort breakaway. Two more runs, one each by Williams and Blount, led to a third-and-10 at the 45 but Freeman converted with a deep out to Mike Williams at the Atlanta 44. Two plays later, the Bucs dipped back into their bag of tricks, using a fleaflicker and throwing deep to Benn. The pass was incomplete but S William Moore was flagged for pass interference, leading to a first down at the 11.
Blount's first-down carry was stopped for no gain, but a receiver screen to rookie Preston Parker got the ball down to the four. Blount's run up the middle was stopped just short of a first down, and the Bucs used a timeout before the clock ran out as they lined up for a critical fourth-down play. Unfortunately, the power-run by Blount didn't work and the Bucs gave it over on downs with 2:37 left.
A fullback dive by Turner pushed the line of scrimmage to the five and brought on the two-minute warning. After the break, Turner pounded for extra yards on a second-down carry, setting up third-and-two. Needing a stop to get the ball back, the Bucs blitzed the line heavily but Turner found a way through and got the game-clinching six yards.
Game Notes: Tampa Bay leads the all-time series with Atlanta, 18-16, but the Falcons have won the last four. That's the longest winning streak for Atlanta in the series. … CB Ronde Barber played in his 200th consecutive game on Sunday in Atlanta. Barber had reached the amazing plateau of 200 games played overall a week earlier in Arizona, thanks to the one contest in which he appeared in his 1997 rookie season. Barber's unbroken string of 200 games played, however, started on opening day of 1998. … Rookie DT Al Woods, just signed off the Pittsburgh practice squad on Wednesday, made his NFL regular season debut. Woods backed up starters Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller and finished with one tackle. Woods is the 15th rookie to appear in a game for the Buccaneers this year. … TE Kellen Winslow finished the game with three catches for 31 yards. His 13-yard catch on third-and-six in the second quarter continued his streak of having caught at least one pass in 68 consecutive games. That streak spans every game of his NFL career. … Rookie WR Preston Parker gained seven yards on a fourth-quarter receiver screen that was ruled a rush. It was his first touch on offense in a regular-season game.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Myron Lewis, FB Earnest Graham, C Jeff Faine, T Jeremy Trueblood, DE Alex Magee, DT Ryan Sims and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Stroughter, Graham, Faine, Trueblood and Sims were out due to injury.
The Falcons activated these eight players: CB Dominique Franks, LB Sean Weatherspoon, T Garrett Reynolds, G Mike Johnson, TE Justin Peelle, DE Lawrence Sidbury, DT Trey Lewis and designated third quarterback John Parker Wilson. Weatherspoon and Peelle were out due to injury.
Injuries: The Buccaneers did not report an injury from the sideline.
For the Falcons, WR Roddy White suffered a knee injury in the first quarter, briefly returned to the game, then left again in the second quarter and was finished for the half. White did return to the game to start the third quarter, however. C Todd McClure also sustained a knee injury in the second quarter but was able to return.