Four weeks ago in the Georgia Dome, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trailed by two scores in the second half when Micheal Spurlock took a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to give the visiting team life. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Falcons held on for a 27-21 victory.
On Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the Falcons trailed the Bucs by two scores in the fourth quarter when Eric Weems returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown to give the visiting team life. If only the similarities between the two games didn't end there.
Instead, the Falcons completed the rally and won 24-21, holding on to first place in the NFC South and putting the Buccaneers on the very fringe of the division race. Losing consecutive games for the first time in 2010, Tampa Bay fell to 7-5, three games behind the 10-2 Falcons with four to play.
"A tough one," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Obviously, we've got to win those games. We've got to figure out a way to win those games. We made mistakes across the board at the end and weren't able to finish it out. At some point you've got to stop using the excuse of being young. We're not willing to make that excuse. All the hard work you put in during the week to get ready for these situations means something."
Michael Jenkins' nine-yard touchdown catch gave Atlanta its winning points with four-and-a-half minutes to play, completing a penalty-plagued 67-yard drive. Falcons QB Matt Ryan converted a third-and-20 on the drive and back-to-back pass interference and horse-collar penalties took Atlanta into the red zone.
The Bucs had time for one more drive and perhaps another fourth-quarter comeback of their own, and managed to reach the Falcons' 27-yard line thanks to an incredibly clutch fourth-down catch by WR Sammie Stroughter. However, CB Brent Grimes intercepted Josh Freeman's next pass to seal Atlanta's victory. An earlier interception by Grimes had been overturned by a replay challenge, and this one was reviewed too, but the call stood.
That marked the first interception Freeman had thrown since that first Atlanta Game in Week Nine, and that one was also snared by Grimes late in the game. Freeman still completed 19 of 38 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown, and got some help in the passing department from FB Earnest Graham, who threw a two-yard option pass to TE John Gilmore that gave the Bucs a 24-14 lead with 10 minutes to play.
Weems struck on the next play after Gilmore's score with the second-longest kickoff return ever against the Buccaneers, following a 105-yard score by Detroit's Terry Fair on September 28, 1998. It was also the first kickoff return for a touchdown the Buccaneers have allowed since Houston's Andre' Davis managed the feat on December 9, 2007. It was also the first time Atlanta had scored in that method since 2002.
"We missed a couple tackles," said Morris. "They ran that thing back to get the momentum back. That was where the game swung but we're not going to use it as an excuse. We still had a three-point lead and we still had to figure out a way to win that game."
It was potentially another costly game for the Buccaneers in areas other than the playoff race. A week after losing S Cody Grimm and G Davin Joseph to season-ending injuries in Baltimore, the Bucs played most of the game without star cornerback Aqib Talib and then lost C Jeff Faine in the fourth quarter. Whether or not the injuries to Talib and Faine prove as significant as those from last week, the Buccaneers will fight on next week as they continue to pursue a playoff berth.
"[Injuries] are excuses to be made by other people," said Morris. "We won't make those. My job is to win the game with the people we have. That's why they give us 45 people every week."
The Bucs played the game in orange Throwback uniforms, hoping to duplicate their 38-28 win over a strong Green Bay team last November in their first Throwback game. And there was plenty to like in this one as well, though the final score rendered much of it moot. For one thing, Tampa Bay's running game continued its very impressive second-half surge, gaining 151 yards on 29 carries and averaging 5.2 yards per tote. Rookie RB LeGarrette Blount was the hammer once again, gaining 103 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries to record his second career 100-yard game. Freeman added 28 yards on four very timely scrambles.
The Bucs' run defense also continued its late-season improvement. Falcons RB Michael Turner came in with four 100-yard games in his last five outings but was held to 88 yards and a score on 24 carries. The Falcons had just 85 rushing yards overall, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
Tampa Bay's defense ended another Atlanta streak by stinging the Falcons with two interceptions, the first turnovers Atlanta had committed in five games. The picks were the first of the season each for safeties Sean Jones and Corey Lynch, the latter of whom was making his first career start in place of Grimm. The Buccaneers had a positive turnover ratio once again, as Grimes' late-game pick was Atlanta's only takeaway.
Overall, the Buccaneers outgained the Falcons 325 yards to 290, allowing only two offensive plays of over 20 yards and none longer than 25. Unfortunately, that 25-yarder was White's reception on third-and-20 on Atlanta's game-winning touchdown drive.
Jones led the Bucs' defense with eight tackles plus his interception and a pass defensed. CB E.J. Biggers, playing most of the game in place of Talib, had seven solo tackles, one for a loss, and a key pass breakup in the first half. However, Tampa Bay did not sack Ryan during the game after producing 12 sacks over the previous three weeks.
Both coaches used both of their replay challenges in the game, and the final review of Grimes' interception came from the booth after the two-minute warning. The Buccaneers successfully overturned Grimes' first apparent interception but the officials found no evidence that Weems stepped out of bounds on his long return. Atlanta's Mike Smith challenged Lynch's interception and a fourth-quarter play deemed an incompletion but lost both of them.
Tampa Bay twice rallied in the first half to take a 14-14 tie into halftime. The second touchdown came after Jones' interception, which led to Freeman's one-yard scoring throw to Williams. The home team then scored on their opening possession with Connor Barth's 33-yard field goal and built the 10-point lead with a 39-yard drive following Lynch's pick.
Tampa Bay's pass defense was strong early, nearly picking off two of Ryan's first four passes, but Turner was more difficult to slow and the Falcons rode him into Tampa Bay territory on their first two drives. The Bucs forced a punt on the first one but couldn't stop the second one, as two TE Tony Gonzalez catches got the ball down to the five and Turner ran it in from there on one play.
The Bucs responded immediately, however, with an impressive 11-play, 84-yard touchdown drive. Freeman's 17-yard scramble after a near sack was the key play early, and Blount finished the march with three runs for 32 yards, including a 20-yard scamper and the final six-yard scoring tote.
The two teams traded punts from there until the latter half of the second period, when Atlanta took the lead back on a 60-yard touchdown drive that was aided by DT Gerald McCoy's personal foul. The Bucs' defense came at Ryan with a three-man line for much of the drive but blitzed two linebackers on third-and-10 from the 17. The Falcons had the right counter, with FB Ovie Mughelli releasing at the snap and Ryan hitting him with no defenders anywhere around. Mughelli scored to make it 14-7 with six minutes left in the half.
Tampa Bay's offense went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, which appeared to give Atlanta an opportunity to extend its lead in the final three minutes of the half. Instead, Jones produced the game's first takeaway, intercepting a Ryan pass deep downfield and returning it 31 yards through traffic to the 30. A catch over the middle by TE Kellen Winslow got the ball to the one-yard line and Freeman then looked to the rookie Williams on the next two plays. A fade to the right didn't work so Williams switched to the left side and ran a simple slant, sliding under the defender to catch the one-yard touchdown pass.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half and made the wise decision to feed their big back. After a fine return by Micheal Spurlock out to the Bucs' 34, Blount went around right end and bounced off one tackler after another for a gain of 28. Two more Blount carries produced a first down at the Atlanta 24 and then Freeman took a crack at the end zone, with CB Dunta Robinson making a diving last-second breakup in front of Benn. A third-down catch by Winslow came up just inches short of a first down at the 15, so Tampa Bay settled for Connor Barth's 33-yard field goal.
Tampa Bay's defense forced a punt on Atlanta's first possession but Michael Koenen changed field position with a 52-yard punt. That pushed the Bucs back to their own nine and they quickly fell into a third-and-10 hole, but Freeman got them out of trouble with a 17-yard strike over the middle to Mike Williams. Two plays later, Grimes appeared to make a leaping interception but the Bucs challenged the play and it was ruled that Grimes had not maintained possession when he hit the ground. That still led to a third-and-11, and the Bucs got a new set of downs when DE Kroy Biermann hit Freeman helmet-to-helmet on a sideline scramble, drawing a personal foul call. Two more Freeman runs, the second one a four-yard burst up the middle on third-and-four, put the ball at midfield. Blount pounded up the middle for nine yards to make it third-and-one but he couldn't get the 10th yard on a third-down run. The Bucs elected to punt and Spurlock downed the ball at the Atlanta three.
Ryan got the Falcons from their own end zone with an 11-yard pass to Mughelli, and Turner followed with a nine-yard run to the Falcons' 24. The Bucs stood Turner up on second down, forcing a third down, but Ryan ran a simple rollout pass to Jenkins for six yards to the 30. It was third-and-11 at the 29 when the third quarter ended, and the fourth period began with a strong Bucs pass rush forcing a Ryan throwaway.
The Bucs got the ball back at their own 37 but faced a third-and-six after two Blount runs. Freeman appeared to convert the third down with a precise out to Mike Williams, but the play was erased by an illegal-procedure call and the Bucs failed on third-and-11. Malone's punt went 64 yards to the end zone for a touchback.
Atlanta's ensuing drive lasted one play. White appeared to slip on his cut to the middle of the field on a post and Ryan's pass sailed over him and to Lynch, who had to dive forward to make the play. The Falcons challenged the ruling but it was confirmed when replays showed Lynch got both hands between the ground and the football and never lost control.
Two plays later, Benn took a pass down the line of scrimmage and split two defenders to get all the way to the two-yard line. A Blount run up the middle failed to gain any yards so the Bucs tried something quite different, with Graham taking a handoff, starting toward the right edge and then pulling up and lobbing a touchdown pass to Gilmore. That gave the home team a 24-14 lead with 10:24 to play.
It didn't last long. Weems followed with his 102-yard return, avoiding several near tackles near the left sideline before suddenly bursting into the clear.
Momentum seemed to swing solidly to Atlanta's sideline with that play. The Bucs' offense, which had been moving the ball well in the second half, followed with a three-and-out capped by Atlanta's first sack of Freeman, by Jonathan Babineaux. A 40-yard punt by Malone gave Atlanta the ball back at their own 33, though the Falcons cost themselves 10 yards with a holding penalty. Two plays later, Atlanta challenged the call of an incomplete pass at the Bucs' 40, but replays upheld the first ruling that the ball hit the ground before White hauled it in. However, Ryan converted the critical third-and-20 with a perfectly-thrown deep out to White at the Atlanta 48. A pass interference call on Barber converted the next third down and put the ball at the Bucs' 31, and a horse-collar penalty on Quincy Black took it all the way down to the Bucs' 16. Three plays later, Ryan threw a perfect nine-yard TD strike to Jenkins, who was well-covered near the left pylon.
The Bucs still had four-and-a-half minutes left to mount a comeback but quickly fell into a third-and-10 hold at their own 35. Freeman kept the drive alive by threading a pass over the middle to Mike Williams, picking up 21 yards into Falcon territory. However, Freeman was flagged for intentional grounding while trying to avoid a sack on the next play and that pushed the ball all the way back to the Bucs' 44. Winslow caught a pass over the middle and avoided several tacklers to get out of bounds at the Falcons' 46. On fourth-and-12, Stroughter saved the Bucs' last-ditch drive with an incredible catch while falling on his back at the 27.
Unfortunately, Grimes came up with his game-clinching interception on the next play. The play was reviewed, just like Grimes' first pick, but this time there wasn't enough evidence to overturn it and the game was effectively over.
Game Notes: Atlanta has won the last five games in the all-time series and have nearly closed the gap on the overall record between the two teams. Tampa Bay still leads it, 18-17. Atlanta had never before won more than two in a row in the series before its current streak. … S Corey Lynch made his first career start on Sunday, taking over for the injured Cody Grimm at free safety. Lynch became the 39th different player to start a game for the Buccaneers in 2010. … WR Mike Williams' one-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was his seventh of the season. That ties the record for Buccaneer rookies set by Michael Clayton in 2004. The overall rookie touchdown record belongs to RB Lars Tate, who had eight in 1988. All of Tate's touchdowns were rushing; RB LeGarrette Blount moved closer to that mark on Sunday with his six-yard TD run in the first quarter. … With Blount and Williams scoring again, the Bucs now have 29 touchdowns and 15 have been scored by rookies. … The Bucs had several special guests at the game on Sunday, including two greats from the team's not-too-distant past: QB Brad Johnson and WR Mark Carrier. Johnson was the Bucs' starting quarterback in Super Bowl XXXVII, and Carrier is the franchise's all-time leader in receiving yards and 100-yard receiving games. … Robert Malone's 64-yard punt in the fourth quarter was the Bucs' longest punt of the year. … FB Earnest Graham's touchdown pass to John Gilmore was the second of Graham's career. Graham's first touchdown pass came against Kansas City on November 2, 2008. Only two other non-quarterbacks in team history have thrown TD passes, with one each for RBs Louis Carter and James Wilder.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: S Larry Asante, LB Dekoda Watson, G Brandon Carter, T Will Barker, WR Preston Parker, WR Dezmon Briscoe, DT Frank Okam and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Watson was out due to injury.
The Falcons deactivated these eight players: CB Dominique Franks, RB Antone Smith, RB Jason Snelling, T Garrett Reynolds, G Mike Johnson, DE Lawrence Sidbury, DT Trey Lewis and designated third quarterback John Parker Wilson. Smith and Snelling were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, RB Kregg Lumpkin sustained a knee injury in the first quarter and did not return to the game. CB Aqib Talib suffered a hip injury in the second quarter and also did not return. C Jeff Faine sustained an arm injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.
For the Falcons, TE Tony Gonzalez left the field with an apparent leg injury in the fourth quarter but no report was available by game's end.