Falcons crest over Bucs
Maybe the Tampa Bay Bucs had been living on the edge so long they forgot how costly one misstep can be. Four straight wins, by a combined 21 points, had elevated the Bucs to rarified heights. Back-to-back victories, decided on game-winning field goals, added a further air of invincibility. But relying on that mystique was a mistake. At least on Sunday, when the Bucs' big-play defense gave up three and made just one, leading to Atlanta's back-and-forth 24-21 victory before 66,135 at Tampa Stadium.

The Bucs, who hadn't lost in a month of Sundays, would have tied the franchise-best winning streak at five. Instead they tumbled out of first place for the first time in two weeks. At the midpoint of its season, Tampa Bay is 5-3, a half-game behind first-place Green Bay and Chicago (both 5-2) in the NFC Central. "We played four tight games and pulled them all out, and now we've got to deal with playing a tight one and not coming out on top," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "I think it will be a big test to see how we respond. We played well on defense, but I guess we didn't play well, because we gave up the big plays, and we haven't done that all year. That hurts."

And how. The Falcons' run-and-shoot offense usually nickel and dimes its way down the field using short, underneath passes. But Atlanta struck for three long Jeff George touchdown passes - 62 yards to receiver/running back Eric Metcalf, and 32 and 30 yards to receiver Bert Emanuel - and won it on Morten Andersen's 30-yard field goal with 7:18 remaining. "We feel lousy, and that's the way you feel when you're used to winning," said Bucs coach Sam Wyche, whose team would have matched the '79 Bucs' five-game winning streak. "The Falcons won this ballgame because they made big plays with a tremendous quarterback and great receivers. This is one of the heartbreakers in a long season."

Tampa Bay's defense entered the game having allowed just seven touchdowns in seven games and 15 points per outing (second best in the NFL). A Bucs opponent hadn't scored more than two touchdowns in a game this season. "We can't allow anybody to come to our place and take a victory like that," Bucs middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "We've got to seize that one and slip it into our back pocket. No one's made those types of plays on us this season. But give them credit, George made plays and their receivers made plays. They did it today."

The Bucs' defense, however, was only half the story against Atlanta. Despite two impressive touchdown drives, Tampa Bay's No. 28 offense did little to jack up its ranking, finishing with 258 total yards, just 25:28 of possession time and a 3-of-11 (27 percent) success rate on third down. The Bucs got touchdown runs of 1 and 2 yards from tailback Errict Rhett, who finished with 88 yards on 23 carries. But quarterback Trent Dilfer was an uninspired 14-of-28, for 177 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions and one sack.

Even kicker Michael Husted, the hero of the Bucs' past two wins, suffered a letdown, badly missing a 39-yard field-goal attempt that would have given Tampa Bay a 24-21 lead with 13:16 remaining. On the Bucs' final two drives, they generated just one first down and failed to reach Falcons territory. "I'm very disappointed with how we've played offensively," said Dilfer, who has now thrown 123 straight passes (five games' worth) without an interception. "This was a game where we could have rescued our defense. It would have shown them a lot and done a lot for this football team to have the offense come in one time and rescue the defense and win a game. I feel for this defense right now because I've been as frustrated as they are right now. They can't say it, they won't say it, and they're too classy, but I'm sure they're very disappointed in us as an offense that we couldn't come through one time and rescue them from a tough situation against a very good offense."

The way things started Sunday, the Bucs' defense didn't look like it would need rescuing. The unit that created a staggering 14 turnovers in the past three games struck again on the Falcons' third possession. Rookie defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the team's No. 1 pick, intercepted a George shovel pass intended for running back Craig Heyward at the Atlanta 5 and took it in for his first NFL touchdown and a 7-0 Bucs lead with 2:11 left in the opening quarter.

"You dream about stuff like that, somebody just flipping the ball right to you," said Sapp, whose big day also included being inserted on offense to block on the goal line for Rhett's second touchdown. "Whenever something like that happens for you, you feel it's always going to be a good day. And we had a good day going except for a couple cheap plays here and there that pretty much cost us the ballgame."

And at least one very tough call - a pass interference penalty on Bucs cornerback Martin Mayhew. The call, made by side judge Jon Bible, ruled that Mayhew interfered with Emanuel on a first down throw to the Bucs' 37. The penalty was worth 36 yards and help set up Emanuel's 30-yard go-ahead touchdown three plays later. Replays seemed to indicate that Mayhew had position and that Emanuel made contact while trailing Mayhew. "I don't want to say anything to get me fined," Mayhew said. "But it was the most questionable call I've ever been involved in."

Added Lynch: "I think that was a terrible call and that's all I'm going to say on that. I think he knew he blew it. But that's not what beat us."

How large Tampa Bay's third defeat looms, and just how much damage, if any, it leads to is the question the Bucs must answer next week in Houston. "You lose some games in this league," Dilfer said. "The real good teams bounce back and play better in every area the following week. It's amazing how much better 6-3 sounds than 5-4, and that's our goal next week."

Don Banks, The St.Petersburg Times 1995