The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to the Georgia Dome, site of so many recent nail-biters with their division-rival Atlanta Falcons, with hopes of finishing a difficult 2011 season on a high note. Instead, Atlanta rolled to a 42-0 lead in the first half and then coasted to a 45-24 victory to get their most lopsided decision in the head-to-head series since a 35-7 win in 1992.
Each of the previous three Bucs-Falcons games in Atlanta, and five of the last six meetings overall, had been decided by six points or less, including a 16-13 win by the Buccaneers in Tampa in Week Three. Tampa Bay rallied on Sunday behind the precise passing of Josh Freeman in the second half but that initial deficit was too big to prevent Atlanta from getting the win and a split of the season series.
The Bucs thus finished the season with a 4-12 record after a promising 4-2 start. The Falcons' win, coupled with a wild Detroit loss in Green Bay on Sunday afternoon, gave Atlanta the #5 seed in the NFC playoffs and allowed them to avoid a return trip to New Orleans, where they lost 45-16 in Week 16.
The Buccaneers moved the ball well in the second half and scored 24 consecutive points before a late Falcon field goal, but the game was all Atlanta during the first two quarters. The Falcons scored touchdowns on each of their first five drives, two set up by Tampa Bay turnovers, and also added a 26-yard interception-return score by LB Curtis Lofton before halftime. WR Julio Jones and RB Michael Turner each scored twice in the opening half, including an 81-yard run by Turner that put the Falcons up by six TDs.
The Falcons rang up 319 of their 428 total yards of offense in the first half and let QB Matt Ryan (6 of 9 for 106 yards and 2 TDs) take a seat before the second quarter was over. Freeman hit WR Dezmon Briscoe for a two-yard touchdown before halftime and the Bucs continued to try to rally after halftime, eventually putting up 24 consecutive points. Briscoe scored again on a five-yard pass in the fourth quarter and CB Elbert Mack added a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown to give the Bucs some life.
Freeman was intercepted twice in the first half, including Lofton's pick-six which occurred after two Buccaneer pass-catchers collided and fall down in the same vicinity, and once at the very end of the game. However, the Bucs' third-year passer was sharp for the final three quarters and finished with 274 yards on 31-of-45 passing. His favorite targets were Briscoe (eight catches for 53 yards) and TE Kellen Winslow (seven for 56).
The biggest difference, as has been too often the case for the Buccaneers this season, could be seen in the respective rushing totals of the two teams. The Bucs never established their ground game and finished with just 35 yards on 14 carries. Josh Freeman, who scrambled for 12 yards on the Bucs' final drive, was the team's leading ballcarrier with 14 yards on three totes. Meanwhile, Turner ran for 172 yards on 17 carries and the Falcons piled up 251 rushing yards overall.
There obviously wasn't much for the Buccaneers to celebrate at the end of the game, but punter Michael Koenen did have a nice showing in his first game back at the Georgia Dome, after six years as a Falcon. Koenen blasted all four of his kickoffs four touchbacks and averaged 49.7 yards per punt, with a net of 46.7 and two downed inside the 20.
The Bucs' defense was plagued by yet another slow start, allowing three third-down conversions on the opening drive, a 12-play, 80-yard march that ended in rookie RB Jacquizz Rodgers' first NFL touchdown, a one-yard run over left tackle. The drive began with Turner's 26-yard run but the biggest play was Ryan's 23-yard hookup with WR Roddy White on third-and-11 from midfield.
The Bucs went three-and-out on their first possession, thanks in large part to DE Kroy Biermann's third-down sack of Freeman, and that gave the ball back to the home team near midfield. Atlanta promptly drove 53 yards for a second touchdown, this time scoring on a third-down play as Ryan found the rookie Jones cutting across the middle for the 17-yard score. DT Albert Haynesworth nearly dropped Ryan on the play but the Falcon quarterback got the pass off and Jones broke a tackle just after catching it in order to walk into the end zone.
It immediately got worse, as Freeman tried to throw a pump-and-go to Briscoe but it was intercepted by CB Dominique Franks, who was starting in place of the injured Brent Grimes. The Falcons thus got the ball back at the Bucs' 48 and they immediately went for the jugular. Ryan threw deep to Jones, who ran a post corner and made a leaping catch despite Tanard Jackson's attempt to break it up. Jones landed on the ground and was ruled to have not been touched by Jackson, which allowed him to run the final nine yards into the end zone.
The Bucs got their first first down of the game on the ensuing drive, but gave it up again on a sack-forced fumble by DE John Abraham. Abraham got to Freeman immediately and simply pulled the football out of his hands as he fell in front of him. The Falcons turned that takeaway into another seven points, driving 30 yards on seven plays to set up Turner's one-yard scoring run on fourth-and-goal.
Atlanta scored again just moments later, this time on defense. After two Buccaneers ran into each other in the middle of the field, Freeman's pass in that direction was easily intercepted by Lofton, who ran untouched around the left end for a 26-yard score and a 35-0 Atlanta lead. After the Bucs were forced to punt from near midfield on their next drive, Turner broke free on a run to the right, finding the sideline and rambling 81 yards for the Falcons' sixth TD.
The Bucs got their offense moving on the next possession, driving 80 yards in seven plays for their first score. Preston Parker got a big chunk of it on the first play, catching a quick slant and breaking into the open for a gain of 48, and he also caught an eight-yarder that made it third-and-goal at the two. The Bucs spread out the offense with five wide and Freeman threw over the middle to Briscoe for the two-yard score.
Atlanta gave Ryan an early exit after that and Chris Redman came in to lead the offense. He got the Falcons just over midfield before the home team let the last 40 seconds run off the clock.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and earned a first down on a nice sideline catch by Briscoe on third-and-eight, though they had to use their second replay challenge to get an initial ruling of incomplete overturned. However, the drive stalled at the Bucs' 35 and they had to punt, with Koenen blasting a 60-yarder that the Bucs downed at the Atlanta five.
The Falcons got out of that hole with White's 16-yard catch on third-and-eight, though he and Redman misfired on a deep post attempt on the next play. After a four-yard run by Rodgers, Redman was nearly sacked by DE Adrian Clayborn, and his resulting short pass to Rodgers was stopped short by a gang of Buc tacklers.
After an Atlanta punt, the Bucs lost five yards on a false start but then got 10 back on a swing pass to Blount that included one of his trademark leaps over a tackler. Lumpkin took a hard shot on a second-down catch but held on for eight yards and a first down. After an 11-yard Parker catch got the ball almost to midfield, Freeman tried a deep fly to his backup QB, Josh Johnson, but it sailed out of bounds. On the next play, WR Mike Williams caught a ball over the middle and broke several tackles to get all the way to the Atlanta 20, a gain of 31. A Lumpkin run went backward two yards but Freeman escaped pressure on second down and got the ball to Winslow for a gain of 10. The Bucs had to settle for a field goal attempt after the third-down shotgun snap went through Freeman's hands, leading to a loss all the way back to the 23. Connor Barth made a 41-yarder to make it 42-10 with 4:19 left in the third quarter.
Atlanta continued to throw on the ensuing possession despite a big lead and it backfired quickly. After an 18-yard catch over the middle by White, Redman tried to hit the same player on a short out to the left but Mack read the play, jumped the route and picked off the pass, returning it 40 yards for the Bucs' second touchdown. Freeman threw a jump ball to Winslow on the right edge of the end zone for a successful two-point conversion, making it 42-18 with 3:32 to play.
After a touchback, the Falcons elected to stick to the ground this time and Rodgers burst up the middle for a gain of 12 to get it started. DE Michael Bennett beat a block on the snap on the next play and tripped Rodgers up for a loss of three and White dropped a pass on the next play to make it third-and-13. A short pass to Jones failed to move the chains so the Falcons punted away.
Starting again at their own 23, the Bucs got gains of seven and nine yards on catches by Madu and Winslow. On first down from the 39, Freeman hit Madu again over the middle for eight yards and that play brought the third quarter to an end. After the switch of sides, Blount powered up the middle for four yards, getting across midfield and setting up a new first down. The Falcons blitzed on the next snap but Freeman stood in and delivered a seam pass to Winslow for 22 yards to the Atlanta 27. Blount released on the next snap and got 11 yards on a short pass, but the Bucs faced a third-and-eight from the 14 moments later. Briscoe ran a slant from the right side and Freeman hit him for another nine yards to the five, making it first-and-goal. On the next play, after using a timeout, Freeman went to Briscoe again and found him in the back middle of the end zone for another touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt failed, even after a roughing-the-passer call gave the Bucs a second try, so the score remained 42-24 with 11:13 left.
The Bucs tried an onside kick but Atlanta fell on it at the Tampa Bay 47. Snelling got three yards on a first-down run, then found a seam for an 18-yard breakaway on the next snap, down to the Bucs' 26. Another 12-yard jaunt by Snelling and a nine-yard carry around left end by Rodgers made it second-and-one at the Bucs' five, and Rodgers was stopped just short of the goal line on the next play to make it first-and-goal from the one. However, S Larry Asante forced the rookie back to fumble on the next play and the ball was recovered at the Bucs' two by S Ahmad Black.
The Bucs found themselves in a fourth-and-two a few plays later and had no choice but to go for it. Freeman had Parker open on the right side but his pass was tipped at the line by DE Ray Edwards, falling incomplete. The two teams engaged in some extracurricular activities after the play but the result was offsetting fouls, so Atlanta still had a first down at the Bucs' 10.
Three runs by Snelling left the Falcons three yards short of the end zone so they brought on K Matt Bryant to kick a 20-yard field goal.
The Bucs got one first down on their final possession but it ended on a tipped-pass interception by CB Darrin Walls. Atlanta then kneeled three times to run out the clock.
Game Notes: Despite the loss, the Buccaneers lead the all-time series with Atlanta, 19-18. Atlanta has won 10 of 17 meetings on their home turf. With the Buccaneers winning in Week Three in Tampa, this marks the first time since 2008 that the two teams have split their season series. … CB Ronde Barber played in his 225th game on Sunday, establishing a new Tampa Bay Buccaneers record. Barber surpassed the 224 games played by LB Derrick Brooks from 1995-2008. Barber first joined the Buccaneers as a third-round pick in 2007, and he played in one regular-season game as a rookie. Since the start of the 1998 season, he has played in 224 consecutive games, all with the Buccaneers. Barber is also the Buccaneers all-time leader in interceptions, with 43, and he ranks second only to Brooks in games started (221 to 216) and tackles (2,198 to 1,337) … Barber's 224 consecutive games played is tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history among defensive players. Bill Romanowski's 243 remains the league standard, but Barber, former Buccaneers Derrick Brooks and Kevin Carter and LB London Fletcher all have 224-game runs. Barber and Fletcher both reached that mark on Sunday. … Barber was one of only five Buccaneers who started all 16 games in 2011. The others were LT Donald Penn, RG Davin Joseph, RDE Adrian Clayborn and SS Sean Jones. … K Connor Barth made his only field goal attempt of the day, a 41-yarder, finishing the season with 15 consecutive successful kicks, one shy of the Bucs' all-time record in that category. Overall, Barth made 26 of his 28 attempts, and his 92.9% success rate is the best single-season mark in franchise history. The previous record was 85.2% by Steve Christie, who hit 23 of 27 attempts in 1990.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: QB Rudy Carpenter, WR Arrelious Benn, WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Anthony Gaitor, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, T Jeremy Trueblood and G Derek Hardman. Benn, Stroughter and Trueblood were out due to injury.
The Falcons declared these seven inactives: QB John Parker Wilson, CB Brent Grimes, LB Stephen Nicholas, C Brett Romberg, OL Kirk Chambers, WR Kerry Meier and DE Cliff Matthews. Grimes, Nicholas and Meier were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, TE Luke Stocker left the game in the third quarter with an elbow injury and did not return. Additionally, CB Ronde Barber sustained an arm injury, left the game after halftime and did not return.
For the Falcons, FB Mike Cox suffered a hand injury in the first quarter but was able to return.