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Picked Apart

The Falcons build a 30-7 lead off four interceptions, then barely survive another thrilling but ultimately incomplete Buc comeback, winning 30-28 and eliminating Tampa Bay from the playoffs

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Yet another big play by Keenan McCardell - a 76-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter - nearly rallied the Bucs to victory

It's official: There will be no Super Bowl repeat this year.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers refused to die until the closing seconds of Saturday's 30-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but when Brad Johnson's pass on a two-point try with 27 seconds left was batted down by Travis Hall, their playoff dreams were finally snuffed out.

The Bucs (7-8) could still finish in a tie with other NFC playoff hopefuls at 8-8 by beating Tennessee, but their sixth conference loss ensures that they would lose out in any potential tiebreaker.

Four interceptions in the first half doomed the Buccaneers, as QB Brad Johnson got off to a shaky start. Atlanta scored 24 points off those four turnovers, taking a 27-7 lead into halftime that they spiked to 30-7 by the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Johnson then led the Bucs on an amazing comeback, directing three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. The Bucs were still down by 16 with 2:30 to play, but Pro Bowl snub Keenan McCardell caught a 76-yard touchdown pass to finish a 96-yard drive, and Karl Williams followed with a two-point conversion on an out-and-in route to make the score 30-22. That drive was made possible when T.J. Duckett fumbled at the Bucs' four-yard line.

A successful onside kick followed as Martin Gramatica purposely drilled a low kick off Falcon CB Derek Ross and Dwight Smith recovered. Johnson, who was 13 of 16 in the fourth quarter, completed four of six passes on a 62-yard drive, hitting FB Jameel Cook for an 11-yard score with 27 seconds to play. Hall denied the two-point try and the Bucs' final onside kick attempt failed.

Johnson was brilliant in the second half and eventually finished with sparkling numbers besides the interceptions: 34 completions in 48 attempts for 346 yards and four touchdowns. In the second half, Johnson hit on 21 of 27 passes for 240 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

"He just missed some throws," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Balls got away from him. But I'll say this: That was one of the great gut-checks I've seen at that position.

"We made some mistakes in the first half in regard to turnovers. My experience in pro football is that it is very hard to overcome turnovers."

Atlanta, which improved to 4-11, broke a six-game losing streak to the Buccaneers and QB Michael Vick had his first breakthrough against a defense that had been his nemesis.

Vick completed just eight of 15 throws for 119 yards, but he tossed two touchdown passes and ran 12 times for 39 yards. It was the type of performance the electric, third-year passer had routinely put together against other teams, but not the Bucs. This time, Tampa Bay failed to sack Vick once and had difficulty keeping him in the pocket when he wanted to run. At one point, facing a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter, Vick and Duckett ran into each other on an attempted handoff, so Vick simply pulled the ball back from Duckett and darted around the right end for an impromptu first down.

It was that kind of day.

At least it was until the final period. Mirroring other disappointing losses to Carolina (twice), New Orleans and Green Bay, the Bucs rallied marvelously at the end only to barely fall short. Gruden, who led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in his first year at the helm, felt good about his team's effort even as it was eliminated from the postseason.

"I'm very proud of our football team, the character they showed in the last 15 minutes of that game," he said.

Coming into Saturday's game, the Falcons had the league's 32-ranked defense and had secured just 11 interceptions all season. And, indeed, Tampa Bay finished with a total yardage edge of 440 to 267; however, the turnovers ultimately doomed the home team.

Vick, who missed the Bucs' 31-10 win in Atlanta in September due to a broken leg, made his third start of the season and the third of his career against Tampa Bay. Much of the pregame focus was on the matchup between Vick and the Bucs' defense, but Atlanta got off to a hot start by keeping the ball on the ground. The Falcons first six plays were all handoffs, highlighted by T.J. Duckett's 25-yard run on the game's second play, and they put Atlanta in position for Jay Feely's 26-yard field goal five minutes into the game.

Duckett finished with 93 yards on 27 carries, most of them straight up the gut, but did let the Bucs back in the game with his fourth-quarter fumble.

Nine minutes after the opening score, following a Keith Newman interception of a badly overthrown pass, Vick got into the act with a rollout, six-yard touchdown pass to TE Alge Crumpler. Three quarters remained but the Bucs, who haven't won a game in which they trailed by 10 or more points since 1999, once again couldn't recover.

The Bucs did briefly appear to jump back into the game in the second quarter, scoring the game's next touchdown to cut the lead to 10-7. Tom Tupa, red-hot in recent weeks, dropped a punt down at the Falcons' two and, after a three-play stop by the Tampa Bay defense, the Bucs got the ball back at Atlanta's 46. Eight plays got it into the end zone, including a 22-yard crossing-route pass to WR Charles Lee.

On third-and-goal from the three, TE Rickey Dudley realizing he was completely uncovered, alerted Johnson to that fact and the two ran an unscripted pitch-and-catch to get on the scoreboard. It marked Dudley's first touchdown since returning to the team a month ago.

That first comeback didn't last long, however, as an obviously confident Vick struck again. On the very first play following Keion Carpenter's diving interception, Vick threw a 49-yard bomb to a wide-open Peerless Price, down to the Bucs' 19. Three plays later, the Falcons took advantage of an eight-inch size mismatch on the right sideline, as WR Brian Finneran plucked a lob out of the air over nickel back Ronyell Whitaker.

Less than a minute later, Johnson was hit as he threw, resulting in a soft pass that was easily intercepted by Juran Bolden and returned 41 yards for a touchdown. Before the half could wind down, Johnson was intercepted again, this time by Bryan Scott on a pass that was deflected by WR Keenan McCardell, and the Falcons tacked on a field goal to make it 27-7.

The Bucs took a now-or-never strategy to start the second half, going for it on fourth-and-seven from the Falcons' 36 on their opening drive. However, the play failed and the Falcons responded with a 44-yard field goal drive that drained another 6:15 off the clock. RB Aaron Stecker then returned the Falcons' kickoff to the Atlanta 40, but a holding penalty brought the ball all the way back to the Bucs' 20.

Johnson did manage to drive the Bucs 80 yards for a touchdown from there, but the march leaked three and a half minutes into the fourth quarter and left the Bucs rather short on time, still down by 16 points. Johnson completed 10 of 12 passes for 73 yards on the drive, including a fourth-down slant to WR Charles Lee for a three-yard score. After that gamble, the Bucs rolled the dice on an onside kick with 11:27 remaining but failed to recover.

Atlanta then ran seven minutes off the clock before Duckett's fumble opened the door for another comeback attempt.

Despite his early struggles, Johnson set several Buccaneer records on the day. His first touchdown pass was his 23rd of the season, breaking his own mark of 22, set last year. Johnson's 24th scoring pass, the dart to Lee, matched his own season best, and he would get two more to make it 26. Late in the drive that produced the Lee touchdown, Johnson also surpassed Doug Williams' Buccaneer record of 3,563 passing yards, eventually finishing the game with 3,715.

As deadly to the Bucs' playoff hopes as this game was, it was also, at times, an exceedingly ugly contest, with minor skirmishes breaking out constantly, particularly on special teams. Falcons LB Artie Ulmer was ejected just before halftime after delivering an ill-advised punch to LB Nate Webster's facemask. The Bucs penalty problems, which had momentarily subsided last week in a win over Houston, also came back, as the Bucs were flagged seven times for 46 yards.

Atlanta's win was a dramatic reversal in the head-to-head series. Tampa Bay had defeated Atlanta six straight times, their best streak against any team, ever. The last Buc loss to their Georgian neighbors came in 1995, when the Falcons won in Tampa, 24-21, on October 22. The Bucs had dominated Atlanta during its winning streak, prevailing in the six games by an average margin of 17 points.

The Bucs finish their season Sunday, January 28, in Tennessee.

Notes: With his fourth tackle of the game, Ronde Barber became set a new team record for stops by a cornerback. Last week, Barber became just the second corner in team annals to have 100 tackles in a season, joining Jeris White, who had 103 in 1978. With his five tackles against Atlanta, Barber surpassed White's mark. … Tampa Bay's loss gave the team its first losing record at home since 1993, when the team was 3-5 at the old Tampa/Houlihan's Stadium. The Bucs finished 3-5 at home this season, as well. … WR Charles Lee, whose 22-yard catch in the second quarter set up Rickey Dudley's touchdown reception, now has four receptions over 20 yards this season in just five games. … The Buccaneer defense, which had at least one interception in each of its first 12 games of the season, has now gone four straight games without picking one off. … The recovery by S Dwight Smith of an onside kick late in the fourth quarter was Tampa Bay's first successful onside kick in over 11 years. The last one was on September 27, 1992, when LB Darrick Brownlow recovered for the Bucs at Detroit.

Injury Updates: DE Greg Spires (left shoulder) and T Kenyatta Walker (right ankle) were each injured in the second quarter, but both returned to the game after halftime.

Quarter Reports: During Saturday's game, Buccaneers.com provided game updates at the end of each quarter. Those updates follow to offer a closer look at the game's key plays.

First Quarter Update

The first quarter was a disaster for the Buccaneers, who had difficulty stopping Atlanta's running game and further hurt themselves with the game's first turnover. A field goal on the opening drive and a touchdown following an interception gave Atlanta a 10-0 lead at the end of the first period. The Bucs did have a first down at their own 40 when the quarter concluded.

The Falcons won the coin toss and chose to receive and return man Allen Rossum got a short kickoff back to the Atlanta 36 to start the game.

RB T.J. Duckett got the handoff on first down and bashed over right guard for a gain of three. On the next play, Duckett found a huge hole up the middle and burst through it for a gain of 25, only denied the end zone by a leg tackle by CB Ronde Barber. A facemask penalty tacked on five yards and put the ball at the Bucs' 31, and Duckett got four more yards on his next carry.

The Falcons stuck to that formula, giving it to Duckett on second-and-six, but this time LB Derrick Brooks caught him in the backfield and stopped him for no gain. However, an offsides penalty on the Bucs reduced the third-down try to one yard and a delayed handoff to FB Justin Griffith out of the shotgun easily moved the chains, picking up four yards to the 18.

Duckett got three more up the middle, then QB Michael Vick threw his first pass, a dart to WR Peerless Price on the left sideline that picked up eight yards. On first-and-goal from the seven, Duckett pushed forward for four yards, and the Falcons called a timeout before running their next play. After the break, Vick tried to roll left and find a man in the end zone but threw the ball away as everyone was covered. On third down, Vick started to drop back but fumbled as he faked a pass or a handoff. Vick had to fall on the ball for a loss of five yards, and Atlanta settled for Jay Feely's 26-yard field goal.

The Bucs also started on the ground, shifting formations twice before finally just running Thomas Jones up the middle for a gain of five. A similar approach on second down gained another four yards, setting up a long third-and-one. Another Jones run, this one over right guard, failed to gain a yard and the Bucs had to punt. Tom Tupa's kick shot right to Rossum on a line and the return man got it back to the 33.

Sticking to a working plan, the Falcons started with Duckett again and he pushed the pile for a gain of seven. Vick faked a handoff on second down and was nearly sacked, but managed to escape up the middle for a gain of four and a first down at the Falcons' 44.

Duckett's next carry met resistance in the middle and was good for just two yards. Vick scrambled out of trouble on second down and found TE Brian Kozlowski for eight yard and another first down. Just into Buc territory, the Falcons got three more yards on a Duckett carry, and another two on second down. CB Ronde Barber's excellent coverage on WR Brian Finneran on third-and-five led to an incompletion and a Falcon punt, which Karl Williams fair caught at the Bucs' 11.

QB Brad Johnson's first pass of the game, a shot over the middle to TE Ken Dilger, picked up nine yards on first down. A counter by Jones back to the left picked up just enough yards to move the chains, and a first down pass to RB Michael Pittman did the same, gaining 10 yards.

However, on the next play from the Bucs' 31, a short pass over the middle to RB Aaron Stecker was badly overthrown and easily intercepted by LB Keith Newman. Newman's return and a personal foul at the end of the runback put Atlanta at the Bucs' six-yard line. After a Duckett run was stopped cold, Vick faked a handoff on second down, rolled left and easily found TE Alge Crumpler in the end zone for a touchdown, giving Atlanta a 10-0 lead.

The Bucs ran two plays before the first quarter ended, a seven-yard run up the middle by Jones and an eight-yard strike for eight yards to WR Charles Lee.

Second Quarter Update

The Bucs momentarily clawed back into the game to start the second quarter, then saw it get nearly out of hand before halftime. Three interceptions led to a quick 17 points for the Falcons, who pumped their lead at the intermission to 27-7.

The second quarter began with the Bucs owning a first down at their own 40. The first play of the period was a pass that RB Michael Pittman dropped, but the second was a well-ran middle screen to RB Thomas Jones that was good for 12 yards.

Just over midfield, the Bucs tried Jones over right tackle but lost two yards on the play thanks to Patrick Kerney's tackle. Another screen pass to Jones was well-read by DT Ed Jasper and resulted in a loss of five. On third-and-17, the Bucs settled for an underneath pass to Pittman and the play picked up 10 yards, leading to the Bucs' second punt. Tom Tupa dropped his punt down inside the five and CB Corey Ivy dove to down it at the Falcons' two.

RB T.J. Duckett got the carry on first down but DE Simeon Rice stopped him just out of the end zone for no gain. A slant pass to WR Peerless Price was incomplete, setting up third-and-10, and LB Derrick Brooks tipped QB Michael Vick's next pass, intended for Price over the middle. Chris Mohr got off a nice, 50-yard punt out of the end zone and Karl Williams' six-yard return put the ball at the Falcons' 46.

Jones got the drive started with a six-yard run over left tackle, and Pittman moved the chains with a gain of seven on a pitch to the right that was very well-blocked. A false start made it first-and-15, and QB Brad Johnson's next pass was incomplete under heavy pressure. Jones got a quick seven yards with a run off left tackle, and Johnson converted the third-and-eight with a crossing route to WR Charles Lee. Lee turned the catch up the right sideline and got 22 yards down to the Falcons' nine.

A first-down run to Jones got just two yards, and a middle screen to the same back got the ball down to the three. On the next play, the Falcons lined up without anybody covering TE Rickey Dudley on the right side and Dudley simply stepped across the line and caught a three-yard scoring pass from Johnson.

After the kickoff, the Falcons gave it to Duckett again from their own 26 and he got just one yard on first down. However, Vick scrambled around left end for a gain of seven on second down. Vick tried to hit TE Brian Kozlowski on a quick out on third-and-two, but the pass sailed well over Kozlowski's head and the Falcons had to punt. WR Reggie Barlow made a great, diving catch of a short punt to give the Bucs the ball back at their own 37.

Johnson threw under pressure on first down and found WR Keenan McCardell open over the middle for a gain of nine, with a facemask penalty tacked on to make it a first down. Just into Falcon territory, the Bucs gave it to Jones again and he danced into an opening up the middle for seven, though LB Matt Stewart saved a longer run with a diving leg tackle. Johnson almost found Lee on another crossing route, but the pass was a bit late and CB Tod McBride caught up just in time to knock it away. The Bucs called a timeout before trying to convert a third-and-three. After the break, the Bucs' attempt failed when the pocket collapsed on Johnson and his hurried pass over the middle was intercepted by a diving Keion Carpenter.

On the very next play, Vick threw deep and hit a wide-open Price down the left numbers for a gain of 49. Duckett's carry off left guard gained three, and Vick faked a handoff and rolled left on second down, with DE Simeon Rice keeping the gain to just three more. On third-and-four from the Bucs' 13, after a Falcon timeout, Vick took a quick drop and threw a lob on the right sideline to Finneran, who easily out-jumped CB Ronyell Whitaker for the touchdown pass and a 17-7 Atlanta lead.

A touchback forced the Bucs to start at their own 20, but they got nine yards on a second-down pass to Pittman. On third-and-one, Johnson hit Lee over the middle, and Lee broke one tackle to gain seven yards. Now at their own 36, the Bucs called a timeout with 1:13 left on the first-half clock.

The next play clearly didn't go as designed, however. Throwing as he was hit by a rusher, Johnson let loose with a floater that CB Juran Bolden easily intercepted and returned 41 yards for a touchdown.

The Bucs started at their own 37 thanks to a penalty on the Falcons, and got eight yards on a short pass to Lee. Johnson's next pass, however, was high and through the hands of McCardell, then intercepted by S Bryan Scott at the Falcons' 49.

Vick scrambled on first down for a gain of five. He then faked a quick pass and handed off underneath to FB Justin Griffith, who shot up the middle for 10 yards to the Bucs' 36. A dumpoff to Griffith on the next play gained 16 more yards down to the 20 and, with three seconds left, the Falcons elected to try a 38-yard field goal, which Jay Feely hit with ease.

Third Quarter Update

Atlanta scored the only three points of the third quarter and generally were content to bleed the clock. The Falcons finished the period with a 30-7 lead on the scoreboard, even though Tampa Bay had the overall yardage edge, 245-229.

The Bucs got the ball at their own 17 to begin the second half, and RB Thomas Jones immediately got 15 yards on a run up the middle. A carry over left tackle picked up another eight for Jones, but he was stopped after gaining just one on second down. On third-and-one, QB Brad Johnson faked a pitch, rolled right and threw a short pass to FB Jameel Cook, who got eight yards and a first down.

RB Michael Pittman got the next carry on first down but gained just one, and a holding call on the next snap made it second-and-19. After a seven-yard pass to WR Keenan McCardell, Johnson found WR Charles Lee on a deep square-in and nailed him for a gain of 14 and a first down at the Falcons' 39.

A three-yard run by Pittman and a pass batted down at the line made it third-and-seven, and Johnson's next pass went through TE Ken Dilger's hands. The Bucs elected to go for it on fourth down but Johnson's pass to Lee was broken up by S Kevin McCadam.

The Falcons thus took over at their own 37 and got just one yard on RB T.J. Duckett's run up the middle. Duckett carried the pile on second down to get eight yards, however, setting up third-and-one. The Bucs' defense thought they had Duckett stopped on third down, but a measurement showed he had gotten just enough to move the chains.

On the next play, QB Michael Vick rolled right and completed an eight-yard sideline pass to WR Peerless Price. After a Duckett run moved the sticks again, he got the ball twice more and picked up just three yards. However, Vick threw over a big Buc blitz on third down and completed an 11-yard pass to Price.

DE Simeon Rice's quick pressure on the next play forced a throw-away, but Vick picked up eight yards on a second-down scramble down to the Bucs' 19. The Bucs didn't fall for play-action on third down and Vick was forced into another errant throw by DE Greg Spires' pressure. Still, the Falcons finished the drive with Jay Feely's 37-yard field goal.

A holding penalty erased a long kickoff return by Aaron Stecker and put the Bucs at their own 20. After a three-yard run by Jones, Johnson hit McCardell for consecutive completions of eight and nine yards. A five-yard pass to Lee moved the sticks, and two short tosses to Jones and K. Williams made it third-and-one at Atlanta's 46. Jones found a seam on third-and-one to pick up four yards and a first down, and also bring the third quarter to a close.

Fourth Quarter Update

Yet another amazing comeback by the Buccaneers fell short, as Tampa Bay came within a two-point conversion of tying the game, but still lost, 30-28. Tampa Bay scored 21 points in the fourth quarter but DE Travis Hall batted down Brad Johnson's pass on the two-point try following Tampa Bay's last touchdown. The loss – suffered despite a 440-268 edge in total yardage for the Bucs – eliminated Tampa Bay from playoff contention.

The fourth quarter began with the Bucs trailing by 23 but owning a first down at the Falcons' 42. QB Brad Johnson hit RB Michael Pittman for a gain of six then scrambled for one yard to set up third-and-three. Johnson then found Pittman again, this time streaking down the left sideline, for a gain of 19 to the Falcons' 16.

A pass to WR Charles Lee gained just one, but Johnson looked off the defense before hitting WR Keenan McCardell at the two on second down. Jones' first-down carry lost a yard and a pass to WR Karl Williams was incomplete under heavy pressure. On third-and-goal, Johnson tried to hit WR Keenan McCardell on a quick stop just over the goal line, but it was also incomplete. However, Tampa Bay went for it on fourth down and Johnson somehow managed to fire a quick slant pass in to Lee amid three defenders for a touchdown.

With 11:27 left in the game and a 16-point deficit, the Bucs tried an onside kick but just missed recovering it. Atlanta took over at the Bucs' 44 as a result and took to the ground, running T.J. Duckett off left tackle for a gain of three. The same play on second down was good for just one, but Vick ran up the middle on a designed scramble on third down and got within half a yard. The Falcons chose to go for it and Vick, after nearly killing the play, saved it. Trying to hand off to Duckett, Vick instead got right into his path. The two were trapped together in the backfield for a moment, but Vick simply kept the ball and ran around the right end for a gain of two and a first down.

The clock ticking below eight minutes, Duckett went left twice, for two yards and a loss of one. Duckett did push forward for six yards on third down, but the Falcons brought on the field goal unit on fourth down. Jay Feely missed a 43-yard try, but CB Ronde Barber was flagged for running into the kicker, giving Atlanta a new first down at the Bucs' 20.

Two more Duckett runs left Atlanta in a third-and-five, but Vick got that and more with a naked bootleg around right end, picking up 12 yards to the Bucs' three. A false start cost the Falcons five yards, and Duckett fumbled on the next play and DE Greg Spires recovered for Tampa Bay at the four.

Johnson worked the soft underneath to start the drive, hitting consecutive completions of five, 11 and four yards to Pittman, Lee and Pittman again. However, he went deep on the next play, finding McCardell open down the left sideline. McCardell caught the pass in stride, stepped through a tackle attempt and broke free for a 76-yard touchdown. Johnson then hit Williams on an out-and-in in the end zone for the two point conversion, making the score 30-22 in Atlanta's favor.

The Bucs' comeback stayed alive with a successful onside kick. Martin Gramatica purposely hit a low, hard kick right at CB Derek Ross and, as planned, the ball bounced off the Falcon right back to the Buc cover men. S Dwight Smith recovered for Tampa Bay at the Bucs' 38.

On first down, Johnson hit Pittman underneath for a gain of eight, bringing on the two-minute warning. After the break, Pittman took a handoff over left guard and ran for 10 yards to the Falcons' 44. Another pass to Pittman gained 13 yards when the back made a dazzling catch of a low throw. Lee came across the middle to catch a nine-yard pass on first down, but a short throw to TE Rickey Dudley was broken up by S Bryan Scott, leading to third-and-one. Jones converted that with a run around right end and the Bucs called a timeout with 39 seconds remaining.

A defensive holding call on Kevin Mathis gave the Bucs another five yards and a first down at the Atlanta 11. On the next play, FB Jameel Cook faked a block then released to the right to catch a hard pass from Johnson. After making a one-handed grab, Cook ran unmolested into the end zone for a touchdown. However, DE Travis Hall batted down Johnson pass attempt on the two-point try, leaving the score at 30-28, Atlanta.

The Bucs were forced to try yet another onside kick, and an attempt to pooch it over the top backfired when the ball went right into the waiting hands of Allen Rossum.

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