Atlanta claims top spot in NFC South after win over Bucs
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 8 November 2010

Raheem Morris finally backed down Sunday. He really didn't have much choice. After all, the Bucs no longer can lay claim to being the best team in the NFC.

"We don't have the fewest losses anymore, so we can't be right now,'' the Buccaneers coach said after the team he proclaimed two weeks ago to be the NFC's best dropped a 27-21 decision to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, falling to 5-3. "If I were to say that now, it would not be an accurate statement.''

Hold your hands about 3 feet apart. That's how inaccurate such a statement by Morris would be today, for in the end, a single yard was all that separated the Falcons and the Bucs in their battle for NFC South and NFC supremacy.

"We lost by a yard,'' Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said, referring to the yard rookie running back LeGarrette Blount failed to gain on a fourth-and-1 play from the Falcons' 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter. "If we get that yard we're having a different conversation.''

As it was, the conversation still was fairly upbeat. After suffering devastating losses to Pittsburgh and New Orleans in the only games they've played against teams with winning records, the Bucs proved to the league Sunday they can at least hang with one of its best.

"It's a sign we're getting better each week, and that's what you want to do in this league,'' said Bucs right guard Davin Joseph, who led the way on Blount's final run. "But in the end you're all about the wins and the losses, and this was a loss. It was a tough loss, but it was a loss.''

For a while, it looked like it would go into the books as an embarrassing loss, like those the Bucs suffered against the Steelers and Saints, who won by 32 and 25 points, respectively. As they have so many times before, though, the Bucs bounced back.

On the strength of a pair of Josh Freeman touchdown passes the first a 14-yarder to rookie Arrelious Benn, the second a 58-yarder to rookie Mike Williams the Bucs erased a 14-0 deficit and went into the locker room at halftime trailing 17-14.

Working off a Freeman interception on the first series of the second half, the Falcons quickly built their lead to 24-14, then extended it to 27-14 a series later. That's when Micheal Spurlock and the Bucs' special teams units made things interesting again.

Spurlock sparked the rally by returning a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to make it 27-21. One play later, the Bucs seemingly recovered an onside kick, but officials ruled after a replay review that the ball grazed kicker Connor Barth's left leg just inches before he was legally allowed to touch it 10 yards downfield.

"That's the NFL,'' Barrett Ruud said. "When you have two teams that are pretty equal like we had here, it can come down to an inch or two and that's really what it came down to. If we get that ball back there, it could have been a different game.''

As it has so often this year, the Bucs' defense stiffened in the second half and got the ball back three plays later. That put the ball back in Freeman's hands, but his magic fourth-quarter touch eluded him this time.

Looking to engineer his sixth fourth-quarter comeback in 17 starts, Freeman threw an interception five plays into the Bucs' next series. While he played an integral role in getting them into position for the winning score, he couldn't get them into the end zone.

"The defense came out and played a great second half, and Micheal Spurlock and our special teams played great and the game pretty much came down to us just needing one yard and we couldn't get it,'' Freeman said. "We just couldn't push it in.''

It was left to Blount, another rookie, to do that. He thought he'd earned the Bucs a new set of downs one play prior, but what he and several other Bucs referred to as a "bad spot'' forced the fourth-down play, and that didn't go as planned, either.

"It was a dive play and I kicked it outside,'' said Blount, who was supposed to follow his lead blocker, Roy Miller, and run behind Joseph on the play.

"He just made a bad cut,'' said Morris, whose offensive coordinator, Greg Olson, defended the decision to run Blount and not lean on Freeman's big play skills in that situation.

"We saw him do the same thing against the Steelers a few weeks ago,'' Olson said, "and so we thought we'd give the ball to our biggest and heaviest back and have him run behind Davin Joseph. It just didn't work out.''

It's one of the few times it hasn't this year. The Bucs, who fell from tied for first in the conference to third in their division behind the Falcons (6-3) and Saints (6-3) in one afternoon, were clinging to that late Sunday.

"We had an eight-minute drive in the fourth quarter to win a football game with first place on the line and we came up a yard short,'' Barber said. "I think that says a lot about who we really are.''